In Febuary of 2016, the Montreal Canadiens were in a rough spot. The team wasn’t playing well and were without star goaltender Carey Price. The team eventually finished in a lottery position, drafting Mikhail Sergachev ninth overall in that draft, but seeing the season headed for failure as the trade deadline approached, Marc Bergevin made a move with the future in mind.
That move was sending playoff cult hero Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann to the Chicago Blackhawks for Phillip Danault and a second-round pick. At the time, the biggest name in the trade was Weise, whose timely, albeit unsustainable, play had endeared him to the Canadiens fanbase, especially as he drove the much hated Milan Lucic insane over the course of two seasons.
At the time, Danault was struggling to carve out a spot at the NHL level and only had decent AHL numbers to his name, but he came with some defensive upside as a centre, something Montreal lacked.
Weise went on to have just one assist for Chicago in 15 games before signing a four-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers in the off-season. In the 152 games he suited up for the Flyers, Weise never reached the same heights he achieved with the Canadiens, and recently was waived. As it stands, he is now awaiting a trade, and has not been sent down for the time being.
On Montreal’s end, the results have been much better. The second-round pick from the trade became top prospect Alexander Romanov, who just recently gained international attention with his performance at the World Juniors. That would be a massive win for the Canadiens on its own, filling a massive need in their prospect pool for the cost of two expiring contracts.
Then there’s Phillip Danault who has spent the last three years working through injuries and surviving heavy roster turnover, now spending most of the current season on one of the NHL’s best lines. Danault’s play has seen his offence reach another level while maintaining his already solid defensive chops. Considering his deployment and role for the Canadiens, it might be time for him to be mentioned in discussions for the Selke Trophy.
Defensively, Danault is Claude Julien’s most trusted forward, ranking third in total time on ice at 5-on-5, trailing just Jeff Petry and Jordie Benn while leading the forwards by nearly 30 minutes. According to Natural Stat Trick, in that time, Danault started just 39.9% of his shifts in the offensive zone (lowest on the team).
Yet Danault is winning the possession battle on a game-to-game basis, providing more than just more shot attempts than his opponents. In the defensive zone, Danault is nothing short of fantastic for the Canadiens, and at even strength, even with his tough deployment, he’s doing a great job at easing the workload on Carey Price.
For the most part, Danault is helping to keep pucks out of the dangerous areas close to the Canadiens’ net, but in the interest of being impartial, the high slot area remains a bit of a weak spot for the team.
Without Danault, the Canadiens’ defensive coverage suffers in similar spots, but hot spots also appear far closer to the net, indicating higher-danger shots for the Canadiens goalies, and this from players getting more of the offensive opportunities. It’s a small thing, but does well to highlight how important Danault is to this team this year.
However, Danault isn’t competing against his own teammates for the Selke. He’s up against the likes of Patrice Bergeron and Anze Kopitar, who are established, perennial candidates for the award. The good news is, so far this year, Danault is keeping right in stride with both, and doing so without much fanfare.
Against the flagbearer for all great defensive forwards, two things stand out immediately. Danault’s biggest flaw is being unable to match the expected offence of Bergeron, which can be explained by the fact that he doesn’t play with David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. With all due respect to Danault’s linemates, including one of the league’s top all-around forwards in Brendan Gallagher, they aren’t 40-goal-scorers like the duo in Boston right now.
The second point worth noting is that Danault takes much harder zone starts and matchups, and still exceeds Bergeron’s possession numbers. It’s not close either: Bergeron gets more offensive zone starts due to how his line is constructed, which is a luxury Danault doesn’t have. To produce defensive results like that, against what the current undisputed leader in this category does, is nothing short of incredible.
What might hurt Danault in the hunt for a Selke nomination is that his penalty-kill work isn’t flawless. For being such a strong 5-on-5 player, his overall body work on the penalty kill doesn’t match up.
It’s hard to say how the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association will distribute their votes. Every year is a crap shoot, but this year should see some love for Danault in the Selke conversation. There’s no guarantee he’ll be a finalist, even if his play matches up with those who will likely be nominated again, but he deserves some recognition for his work.