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Phillip Danault established himself with his best season to date

In a top-six role for the third straight season, Danault took another step forward.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the 2018-19 season, there were questions surrounding Phillip Danault’s ability to lead a top line for the Montreal Canadiens, especially once Max Pacioretty was traded before training camp started.

With question marks surrounding the rest of the Canadiens centre depth at the beginning of last season, a huge amount of pressure was going to be put on Danault’s shoulders and not only did he not struggle, he thrived.

The line of Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher was one of the best lines in the entire NHL when it came to controlling percentage of shots when they were on the ice and it was Danault who played a major part of their success.

If you look at the above chart, the first thing that sticks out is the blue square in the bottom left. At a glance, it shows that Danault without Gallagher was the worst version of Danault, making you think that Gallagher was the leader that pulled the other two along.

However, there are things you need to realize with that. The first is that they are extremely small sample sizes. Gallagher only played 157 minutes without Danault at 5-on-5, and Danault only played 211 minutes without Gallagher. That is an extremely small sample size. Even if you take the higher Danault total, over 82 games it comes to just 2:34 per game. Danault’s minutes without Gallagher usually went to minutes with Jonathan Drouin or Artturi Lehkonen which were not as successful.

That explanation still makes it seem like Gallagher drove the line when they were together, but then I want to draw your attention to the top right and specifically the 11 in the red and black boxes. You’ll notice that Gallagher was good even without Danault but even better with him. That pattern applies to Tatar as well. Really, it applies to every player in the image above (which requires a minimum of 98 minutes played with Danault) except Drouin.

Danault grew into his own as a centre, earning a career high in assists and points while playing the toughest minutes at centre on the team which earned him some Selke votes. His 12 goals were one short of his career high as well. He went from a player who seemed like he was reliant on other star forwards to someone who could be legitimately used as a top-six centre. There should now be no doubt of what Danault is as a player, and based on their success it would be borderline criminal to break up the combination of Danault with Gallagher and Tatar.

No matter which way you slice it - goals, shots, chances, attempts - Danault, Gallagher and Tatar were best as a trio. No combination of two players was as successful as the three together. They truly were greater than the sum of their parts. It just worked.

Danault-Gallagher-Tatar With or Without You

Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 TOI CF CA CF% SF% GF GA GF% xGF xGA xGF% SCF% HDCF%
Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 TOI CF CA CF% SF% GF GA GF% xGF xGA xGF% SCF% HDCF%
Phillip Danault Brendan Gallagher Tomas Tatar 674.87 891 571 60.94 60 40 20 66.67 35.89 22.33 61.64 62.07 63.19
Phillip Danault Brendan Gallagher w/o Tomas Tatar 252.22 289 244 54.22 54.23 14 18 43.75 10.76 11.8 47.68 47.92 40.87
Phillip Danault w/o Brendan Gallagher Tomas Tatar 60.58 69 72 48.94 46.05 1 4 20 3.07 3.11 49.62 44.44 41.38
w/o Phillip Danault Brendan Gallagher Tomas Tatar 78.55 94 67 58.39 57.47 4 6 40 4.38 3.14 58.24 48.84 56.76

Simply put, the Canadiens were better at both sides of the rink with Danault. Offensively they were 24% better than league average with him on the ice showing the dominance of that top line. Defensively, they will be seen as average compared to the rest of the NHL. However, when you consider that Danault was playing against the top players on the other teams, that “average” looks a whole lot better.

There were a lot of players who had career years in 2018-19 for the Canadiens and it leaves us wondering whether that is a new benchmark or a one-off. For Danault, it is now three seasons in a row where he was given a top-six role and excelled. He can be trusted in that role, and likely will be for the foreseeable future pending development from Jesperi Kotkaniemi or Ryan Poehling.

There will always be questions on whether Danault can lead a top line because of his offensive numbers. However, the numbers are much kinder than you may think.

In 2018-19 he was 28th in scoring among players with at least 1000 faceoffs. From 2016-17 to 2018-19 he was 47th in scoring among 63 players with at least 2700 faceoffs in that span. Both numbers put him firmly in the top-six centre conversation and that doesn’t even account for his strong defence.

After providing the Canadiens with solid play for three seasons in a similar role, he can now be counted on in that role. There may be several question marks heading into the 2018-19 season for Montreal but Danault is no longer one of them.

He shouldn’t be an unsung hero anymore, either.