The Montreal Canadiens opened their final stretch of the season with another loss. Monday night was host to a performance that should have led to a better result, but, like we’ve seen many times before, scoring chances were not converted, and a few key plays from talented forwards at the other end sank a Habs team light on game-breaking talent.
On a more positive note, a major reason why the Canadiens were able to go toe-to-toe with one of the best formations in the league for the full duration of the game was — again — the play of Phillip Danault. He ended the night a minus-two, but the stat didn’t reflect the effectiveness of the centreman, nor his desire to provide the Habs with a much-needed win.
Danault had a few great shifts. The offensive play often flowed through him due to his ability to drag defenders out of position and open lanes to the slot for onrushing linemates.
The centreman’s combination of patience and vision is something new in his game, or at least if it isn’t new it’s showing up more frequently this season than in previous ones.
Before, Danault would be guilty of forcing passes that weren’t open, especially to the front of the net. It’s true that when in doubt it’s better to send the puck toward the blue paint, but more often than not doing so just gives the puck back to the other team as they are all regrouped around the crease, ready for a few short passes to break out.
When he wasn’t forcing net-front plays, he would often pin the puck to the wall of the offensive zone and wait for support. The entire defensive box would come down to engulf him, and then his linemates, reducing the likelihood of the puck escaping the scrum in Habs control.
Now, Danault’s experience and improved puck-protection techniques enables him to get the upper hand on defenders more often. He still loves to battle in tight spaces, but he moves his feet more and does so purposefully, drawing opponents in. When they get close enough, he accelerates into open space, which prevents the defence from immobilizing him. He actively looks to distance himself from the walls to create space that he can use to cut back and continue escaping the grasp of the opposition.
Danault’s offensive awareness also seems to be improving. The constant shoulder-checks he makes defensively now serve him just as well away from the puck in the opposing end. He isn’t as great a passer as Jonathan Drouin or Max Domi, but he knows where and when to send the puck. On top of that, his protection mechanics and higher level of comfort when approaching opposing sticks head-on off the rush enables him to hold on to the puck and wait for plays to develop.
Here’s an analysis with text inserts of one of Danault’s shift.
In other words, Danault was impressive last night, like he was in many other games in the last few months.
As we’ve come to expect from him, when he wasn’t flashing offensively, he continued to contribute in all the other ways that helped his line gain the upper hand on the opposition; things like shutting down plays defensively, moving the puck quickly out of his zone, and recovering possession deep in the other end.
It’s this combination of consistency in getting the details of the game right and still developing offensive capabilities that make him a great model for some of the Habs young centreman: Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling. It is also the reason why it could take a little while for any of the youngsters to surpass Danault and centre the Habs’ top line.
Learning to be effective, and even dominant, against some of the best players the NHL has to offer is a process. It took Danault more than a few seasons to get there, and he is still, to this day, rounding out his game and adding new tricks to his offence.
We sometimes forget that development doesn’t stop at 21, and it won’t for the other Habs pivots, either. The presence of Danault will continue to help them learn the details of the game, while honing their arguably superior skill against easier opposition. Until one day, when one of them is ready to take over.