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Phillip Danault and the search for offensive skill

Does the Canadiens’ centre have enough offensive ability to lead a scoring line?

Montreal Canadiens v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Earlier this week, we took a look at how Phillip Danault and Max Pacioretty form an elite pair which drew some criticism because Danault just doesn’t look like a number one centre.

A lot of how we see the game comes from our eyes, and Danault reminds a lot of people of a player who simply doesn’t have the skill to be a legitimate top-six NHL centre.

Danault was drafted 26th overall in 2011, and like many players drafted in the second half of the first-round, offence was a question.

In the QMJHL, he put up just over a point per game, with 74 goals and 177 assists (251 points) in 244 games. You look at the discrepancy between goals and assists and the first instinct (it was mine) is to see who he played with.

The list of players is underwhelming. In the 2011-12 season, the year Danault had 18 goals and 53 assists in 62 games with the Victoriaville Tigres, this is the group the team had in the top 10 of scoring.

2011-12 Victoriaville Tigres scoring

You’ll recognize Yanni Gourde, likely, but on that list it’s not like Danault was led by an elite offensive talent. Other than Gourde, who himself was undrafted, there’s not even another NHL player on the list.

So Danault’s high assist numbers are not due to riding the coattails of the players around him. And nor were they from the power play. 48 of the 71 points he earned were at five-on-five, including 13 of his 18 goals.

He’s definitely a playmaker, and the splits he had in Junior have moved with him to the professional level as well. He will not get more goals than he gets assists. He simply is not that kind of player.

And despite what many feel, Danault has made some elite plays at the NHL level. He’s not just a plugger and defensive guy. There’s some real skill to his game and that will continue to develop as he enters his third full season with the Canadiens and the supporting cast in the organization improves around him.

One play that stands out from last season is this pass to Max Pacioretty. It doesn’t end with an assist, but it creates a Grade-A scoring chance for Pacioretty.

What I love about this play is not only the speed his shows and the incredible saucer pass. It’s the subtle look to Pacioretty while he skates towards the goal. He’s being chased by two players and has a Lightning defender in front of him in a mini two-on-one situation. He has the frame of mind to take a look and see exactly what he’s getting into to create the best opportunity to score.

He can also create plays for himself, like in this following clip.

Danault takes the puck in his own end, skates by a defender who starts ahead of him in the play and uses strong puck possession once he hits the opponent’s blue line to drive towards the net and create a great scoring chance.

And there are times when his skill does end in a goal. Like this end-to-end rush against the Winnipeg Jets. But that was from 2016-17.

Danault has shown flashes of brilliance at the NHL level, and entering the first year of his first big contract he has a chance to establish himself as a player who can be more than just a defensive gem.

With the way the Canadiens are formed, Danault will be getting a chance with offensively-gifted wingers. With the return of Tomas Plekanec, and Jacob de la Rose waiting in the wings, he will not have to play top defensive minutes. This gives him a unique opportunity over a full season to put the flashes he has shown over the last two seasons into a full package.