Over the course of their long history, the Montreal Canadiens have enjoyed a tradition of “200-foot” players: individuals who were offensively capable and defensively responsible. Hall of Famers Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau are usually the first examples to come to mind. However, over the last decade, the preeminent player of this mould in the NHL has been Patrice Bergeron — something that has stung at many Canadiens fans like a persistent rash.
Bergeron ticks all of the boxes to be a perfect Montreal Canadiens player. He’s defensively adept, offensively adroit, a steady hand, capable leader, and yes, native son. Yet, Les Glorieux could not have him. The fact that Habs fans have watched him, clad in the hated black and gold of the Boston Bruins, stymie the Canadiens again and again during his career further rubbed salt in the wound.
During that time, the Canadiens have had no answer. Tomas Plekanec was the closest, but the Czech, admirable and beloved as he was, couldn’t reach Bergeron’s level on the ice and never evoked a passion among the fans as Bergeron would have had he worn the bleu, blanc, et rouge. With the turtleneck now hung up in the closet for good, the Habs must turn to different hands to hold up the torch.
In the summer following Phillip Danault’s acquisition from the Chicago Blackhawks, the general consensus was that Marc Bergevin had obtained a player who could possibly serve as a younger and cheaper replacement for the departed Lars Eller. No one could have imagined that three years later, Danault would be the Canadiens number-one centre — not just by default, but by merit. Danault has already stepped into the skates of Plekanec. Now the question is: How close is he to Bergeron at the top of the mountain?
Danault needs to develop his scoring touch
In terms of individual productivity at five-on-five, Danault (red bars in the graphic below) still has some way to go to reach the Bruins’ centreman (yellow bars). While the Canadiens’ centre and the Bruins’ veteran are more or less equal when it comes to individual playmaking prowess, Bergeron distinguishes himself as a superior goal-scorer, recording more goals, shots, and chances. The two match up well when it comes to some of the less heralded metrics like rebound generation and penalty discipline. Danault could be more careful with possession of the puck, but he is remarkably close to Bergeron in faceoff proficiency, widely considered as one area that sets the Bruin apart.
Danault’s weaker goal generation metrics may stem from the differences in how he is perceived as a player and the resulting expectations placed upon him. Having been acquired ostensibly as a bottom-six player, Danault’s mindset would have been moulded to err on the side of caution. In contrast, Bergeron, having spent time as part of a Bruins power-play unit since his rookie season, would be expected, and expect himself, to contribute offensively. Instead of defaulting to the “safe” play, Bergeron would have explored other options designed to create offence.
The Bruins’ star has had more than a decade to figure out exactly how much offensive risk he can take without sacrificing his defence. Danault, on the other hand, is still inexperienced enough to prefer deferring offensive duties to his linemates.
Danault is Bergeron’s equal when it comes to controlling play
While Bergeron, as an individual, is superior to Danault when it comes to offensive acumen, Danault is far from a burden on his teammates. Montreal’s possession numbers at five-on-five with Danault on the ice are almost identical to Boston’s with Bergeron off the bench, meaning that the Tomas Tatar, Danault, and Brendan Gallagher line are more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the “Best Line in Hockey” (patent pending).
The one difference between the two units is in goals-for percentage. Here, the Beantowners come out ahead by nearly five percentage points. This, however, can be explained as a fluctuation of shooting luck — a combination of good luck for the Bruins and slightly bad luck for the Canadiens — as the expected goals-for percentage metric has the two much closer together.
Bergeron’s metrics relative to the rest of his team are much stronger than Danault’s, but that could simply be an indication that Danault plays on a deeper squad. Certainly, stacking the top line with the team’s three best players in Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak would have had a negative knock-on effect for the rest of the Bruins team.
Danault is used as a shutdown centre, Bergeron isn’t
Everything above needs to placed into on-ice usage and deployment contexts, and the result may be surprising. While Bergeron has long enjoyed a reputation as a shutdown centre, the reality is that he’s no longer actually used in that role.
In order to boost the abilities of Marchand and Pastrnak, Bergeron now enjoys a 60/40 offensive-/defensive-zone start split at five-on-five. For Danault, the situation is reversed. The Canadiens player starts his shifts in the offensive zone nearly half as much as Bergeron per 60 minutes of ice-time.
In terms of opposition, both Danault and Bergeron spend the bulk of their five-on-five minutes facing off against the opposition’s top lines. The difference is that Danault plays with the entire top six of the Montreal forward corps, while Bergeron almost exclusively hits the ice as part of the top three.
Danault is overwhelmingly the leader in time on ice among the Montreal forwards on any given night (as indicated by the size of the red bar in the “1” position below), while Bergeron tends to be second or third.
Bergeron is still the goal, but Danault has the potential
There’s little question that Danault isn’t as good or as complete a hockey player as Bergeron right now, but there can also be little debate that Danault has blossomed into far more than the third-line centre Habs fans thought the team was acquiring. Still only 26, Danault is far from realizing his final form.
In closing, there are two things to keep in mind:
- Bergeron first received Selke consideration in his age 24 season (finishing fifth in voting) after playing 376 NHL games. Danault first received Selke consideration in his age 25 season (finishing seventh) after playing 268 games.
- In his age 23, 24, and 25 seasons (217 games played), Patrice Bergeron recorded 107 points (41 goals and 66 assists) at even strength. Phillip Danault (215 games played) recorded 106 (32 goals and 74 assists).