Phillip Danault has been on quite the ride in just over three seasons as a Montreal Canadiens player. Acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in 2016, Danault originally looked to be a project of a player, with minimal NHL time and lacklustre production.
None of that is what you want to see from a first-round pick, especially for a Chicago team in a cap crunch trying to squeeze a few more years out of an aging core. So Danault and a second-round pick were shipped to Montreal in exchange for Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann.
It was a fair bit of business at the time for Marc Bergevin, who wasn’t likely to give the soon-to-be free agent Weise the money he wanted, and he collected a young player, plus draft capital.
Immediately after that, things took a serious dive for the Blackhawks. Weise played 15 games and managed just one assist, while Fleischmann had five points in 19 games. Chicago lost in seven games to the St. Louis Blues in the first round, and both of the pieces they traded for left in the off-season.
Fast forward three years and Dale Weise is in the Canadiens organization again, Fleischmann is retired, and Danault just had a career year, capped off by a seventh-place finish in the Selke Trophy voting.
That second-round pick became Alexander Romanov, who is quickly becoming one of the top defensive prospects outside of North America. Playing regular minutes on a top team in the KHL is no small feat, and it adds just that much more insult to injury for the Blackhawks. A top-line centre on a team-friendly deal and a pick at a stage of draft that still has top-of-the-lineup prospects available, for two rentals who bombed out isn’t just a good trade for Montreal, it’s quite possibly one of the most lopsided deals in recent NHL history.
Danault’s arrival could not have come at a better time for Montreal, as longtime pivot Tomas Plekanec was entering the twilight of his career. In the season Danault arrived, Plekanec put up a respectable 54-point season in 82 games, then almost shockingly fell off a cliff in terms of offensive production for the Canadiens. In 78 games in 2016-17, Plekanec managed just 28 points. While his defensive chops were still adequate, it was clear his time as a top-six NHL player was at its end.
The following season held more of the same as the Czech centre struggled to breathe life into his offensive game, and was soon eating up bottom-six minutes before he was traded to Toronto at the trade deadline.
While Plekanec’s decline was hard to stomach for many fans, it quietly paved the way for Danault’s rise as a top defensive centre in the NHL. Danault steadily rose to similar minute totals to Plekanec as the elder player was in decline. Over three seasons the Danault trended toward the harder minutes that Plekanec had taken on in the previous decade.
There didn’t seem to be much fanfare for the smooth transition until the past season when Danault had his breakout year. Much of that seemed to relate to an ongoing debate over who would be the next top-six centre in Montreal: Alex Galchenyuk, then a hopeful switch to Jonathan Drouin, and even Max Domi, who started his tenure in the middle of the ice. While Domi performed very well in his first year with the team, it was Danault who held on to that role, and took it as his own.
Danault has already matched Plekanec’s best finish in the Selke Trophy voting, and it is clear that he has taken over the role once occupied by Plekanec, eating up heavy defensive minutes while still creating offence with his linemates. He will never be the flashiest player, or the highest-scoring one, but he is filling a major role for the Canadiens and that is a benefit on multiple levels. Montreal doesn’t need to rush Ryan Poehling or Nick Suzuki into the NHL now; they have time to grow and move into roles as important as Danault’s when that time comes.
It’s hard to see a team legend pass off the torch, but Plekanec giving way to Danault has been a smooth handoff for the team.