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Phillip Danault’s tough start to the year continued against Toronto

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In a contract year, the Habs’ top line centre is having a forgettable first quarter.

NHL: FEB 10 Maple Leafs at Canadiens Photo by Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last night was not Phillip Danault’s worst game in a Montreal Canadiens uniform, but it was also far from his best. Playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs is no easy task for a defensive centre, and while he did reasonably well at five-on-five, he was particularly bad in the moments where he didn’t have a second winger available to him.

On the first four-on-four goal by Toronto, Danault was out when the Habs got completely hemmed in their own zone, and he had several chances to clear the zone before the goal occurred. Normally, you’d expect him to be able to execute at least a quick flip into the neutral zone, but he seemed incredibly tentative and it ended up costing his team.

To be fair, the four-on-four play didn’t get any better when the Canadiens got a second crack without Danault on the ice in the second. Still, it was surprising to see him play so poorly on that unit. You’d expect a speedy team like the Habs to be solid with some extra space — particularly if they have a defensive stalwart out there at centre — but they were downright awful.

But I digress, as the reason Danault’s game was noteworthy last night is not because he cost them the game, because he didn’t. It’s noteworthy because as he was last night, he has been one of the more underwhelming forwards for the Habs in a year where he’s looking to earn a new contract.

Nothing has changed for him. He has the same linemates, takes a lot of similar nightly assignments, but he’s not contributing at the same level that has become expected of him. It’s not just offensively speaking, as the Habs’ ability to put out almost any line they want against the opposition’s best players this year has negated the need to get him out when the Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid’s of the league are on the other side.

Unfortunately, however, the reduced reliance on him to constantly play the shutdown role brings increased expectations on offense. As of this writing, he has as many points as Joel Armia, who has played in seven fewer contests. Danault needs to be better, not just for his own contract aspirations, but because this team needs his line to provide some offense when the others cannot.

I wonder if the pressure of this being a contract year is wearing on him. I wonder if the emergence of trios that are ostensibly lower than his on the depth chart concerns him. I wonder if — given that reports indicate he turned down a contract in the environs of $5 million AAV during the offseason — he’s looking for a change of scenery.

Maybe none of that is the case, but if he’s hoping for a long-term deal in Montreal worth more than what he was reportedly offered ahead of the season, the Habs will need to see more out of him sooner than later.