For the longest time, NHL observers, including fans of the Montreal Canadiens, have looked at Phillip Danault as a top centre ... by default. There existed a prevaling notion that Danault was a third-liner keeping a seat warm for either Nick Suzuki or Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Now, on the heels of a run to the Stanley Cup Final powered in large part by Danault, the spotlight shines on the Canadiens and general manager Marc Bergevin to address that notion and answer the question:
How irreplaceable is Phillip Danault?
Act 1: Life without the “Big Line”
At this point, there isn’t much left to say about Danault in the regular season that hasn’t already been said. Together with Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, Danault was part of one of the most, if not the most effective line in hockey at five-on-five. The line was so proficient that Danault, despite his lack of shooting prowess and power-play acumen, was at one point touching the $7 million stratosphere in terms of sheer market value.
In terms of their share of goals when they're on the ice, the Tatar - Danault - Gallagher line has been the most effective in the NHL since it was put together in 2018-19. #GoHabsGo pic.twitter.com/TMBASJG4zN— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) May 28, 2021
The question was always how much of the top line was Danault and how much was his more offensively gifted linemates? With Tatar most likely leaving the club, this question looks like it’s about to make the leap from hypothetical to reality.
The Canadiens got a sneak preview of what a big line-free future looked like this year when Gallagher missed a large chunk of the season due to injury. The results were ... not promising, to say the least. The team went from a .603 point percentage to .409, backing into the post-season with an 8-12-2 final stretch. Every five-on-five metric saw a hit with Gallagher out of the lineup, from shot and chance generation to expected goals. However, what really cratered was their goal share (GF%), which unbelievably dropped from 60.7% (first in the league) to 36.8% (31st).
How did Danault fare? The Canadiens’ top centre certainly did not emerge unscathed, but by in large, the drop in his on-ice metrics coincided with the overall team trend. However, two areas of concern stand out: GF% and high-danger chance share (HDCF%). Not only do these areas deviate from the team-wide trend, they also deviate from the trend in Tatar’s metrics.
This is both unsurprising and indicative of the weaknesses in Danault’s game: that he relies on others to generate chances and score goals. Danault’s forte is that he moves the puck from defensive positions to offensive positions, and that he offers others the freedom to play aggressively without having to worry about being a defensive liability. As we can see, while Tatar too was hampered by the loss of Gallagher, the engine of that trio, he was able to somewhat limit the impact on goals and high-danger chances through his own ability to create.
Fortunately for the Canadiens, Danault’s value is more intrinsically boosted by Gallagher, the asset that is staying, than Tatar, the asset that is likely departing. We saw a brief glimpse of this during the regular season during a five-game stretch where Danault and Gallagher were joined by Tyler Toffoli. The trio enjoyed a 5-2 goal differential and put up strong underlying numbers, although not as potent as those put up by Tatar-Danault-Gallagher. We also saw further evidence of this in the playoffs, as Danault and Gallagher formed the core of the Canadiens’ top line while Tatar languished as a healthy scratch.
Act 2: What have you done for me lately?
At the beginning of the playoffs, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said “I’m not going to be hiding our best people from anyone.” However, a funny thing happened in Game 2. Despite the Canadiens losing the game 5-1, the Tatar-Danault-Gallagher line did not allow a single shot attempt against while they were on the ice together. Moreover, Auston Matthews’s metrics were far worse facing this trio relative to the rest of the Canadiens. By the time Game 5 rolled around, Keefe was suddently taking full advantage of last change to put his top line out against Cole Caufield, Suzuki, and Toffoli.
This narrative followed Danault for the playoffs. First it was Matthews and Mitch Marner, then Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor, then Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty. By the time the Final rolled around, Jon Cooper was taking no chances, using his superior depth to glue Yanni Gourde’s line to Danault’s hip in order to free up the likes of Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. Unsurprisingly, this furthered the idea of Danault as an indispensable part of the Canadiens organization.
Paradoxically, whether because of these harsh deployments or not, Danault’s on-ice metrics took a large hit in the post-season relative to his regular-season resume. In particular, when it came to expected goal share (xGF), Danault was overwhelmed in the first three games of the Toronto series. Yes, even in Game 2, when his good numbers with Tatar and Gallagher were cancelled out by poor numbers with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen. It wasn’t until Game 4 versus Toronto that Gallagher and Danault were permanently set on the same line (first with Tatar, then Jake Evans, and finally Lehkonen) and Danault’s performance began to level out — to the tune of zero goals against at five-on-five for the next 10 games.
The creation of a Byron-Danault-Anderson line in Game 1 made it clear from the outset that Ducharme wanted to use Danault in a shutdown role rather than as a 200-foot player. It was also clear that Danault couldn’t carry that load by himself until given at least one of his familiar linemates. Both these things bore out statistically in the post-season, where Danault played a clear second fiddle to Suzuki.
However, one must consider the sheer depth to which Danault was buried before anointing Suzuki as the Canadiens’ top centre. Just looking at zone starts alone, Suzuki finished the playoffs with a -10 differential, meaning that he took 10 more five-on-five defensive-zone faceoffs than offensive-zone ones. Kotkaniemi? Minus seven. Eric Staal? Minus 14.
Minus one hundred sixty one (-161).
Of the 22 post-season games that the Canadiens played this year, Danault took 10 or more defensive-zone faceoffs in 10 of them, topping out at 19 in Game 3 versus the Winnipeg Jets. By comparison, Suzuki and Staal were charged with this task once each. Danault also won these draws at a 57.2% clip, which actually improved to 58.1% on the road.
Act 3: The other guys
As with any other competitive environment, Danault’s valuation will be heavily impacted by his peers, especially in the current league-wide economic situation. Two recent signings will have particular relevance for Danault: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’s eight-year, $40-million deal and Joel Eriksson Ek’s eight-year, $42-million contract. Although the two are in very different stages of their career, both, like Danault, are very-good-to-great centres who are not in that superstar tier (although the Minnesota Wild certainly hope that Eriksson Ek can get there).
There is a third player who is closer to Danault in terms of play style and usage, but who was signed under better economic conditions: Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
From a regular-season perspective, Danault is the runaway leader in just about every on-ice metric over the last three years. Furthermore, the Canadiens centre holds his own when it comes to point-production, even against the much more offensive-minded Nugent-Hopkins. The playoffs, however, are a different matter. Over the last two post-seasons, while his on-ice metrics are still comparable, Danault lags considerably behind this trio when it comes to individual point-production.
The Danault-Pageau comparison here is particularly striking. Both have nearly identical expected-goal metrics (18.58 xGF, 17.99 xGA for Danault; 18.87 xGF, 17.39 xGA for Pageau), but the Canadiens are outscored 7-11 with Danault on the ice while the Islanders are outscoring their opposition by a ridiculous 24-12 margin when Pageau is in the action. Finishing ability? Puck luck? Small sample size? Hard to say.
The last point that needs to be made here is the same as when comparing Danault to the other Canadiens centres: deployment. While Pageau and Eriksson Ek see their playoff deployment shift toward defensive-zone starts by roughly five percentage points compared to their regular-season numbers, Danault’s shifts by 19. Still, how much does that hamper — or perhaps excuse — the drop in Danault’s numbers?
Conclusion: Is five the magic number?
Based on Danault’s statistics, history, and prior examples, temporary Canadiens superfan Dom Luszczyszyn, through his model, projects $5.8 million x 4.4 years. At the same time, he remarks that “a three-year deal at $4.5 million feels like the sweet spot for him,” citing concerns that Danault peaked last season and his ability to produce away from Gallagher. Alternatively, Evolving-Hockey’s contract predictor posits the two most likely options to be a seven-year deal worth $6.2 million AAV or a three-year contract at $5.3 million per annum.
This past year has made two things clear. First, the Canadiens do not have a direct plug-and-play replacement for Danault on their roster or in their system. There are other players in Danault’s mould, but no one has earned the trust of the coaching staff, especially in defensive situations, quite like #24. Second, Danault’s numbers are not out of place alongside his peers in the $5 million AAV bracket.
Bergevin would do well to stick to five on another more important front: contract length. At 28 years of age, Danault has, optimistically, five to six more years of top-six centre ability. Given all the unknowns surrounding how he will perform in the absence of the “big line” and whether he has another gear when it comes to personal offensive output, anything over five years presents an unnecessary risk. From Danault’s perspective, a shorter term gives him an opportunity to quash all of the talk that he’s a “product of a system” or “all defence,” giving him a potential opportunity to cash in on a even bigger payday in his early 30s.
In the end, $5 million is likely the best starting point for both Danault and Bergevin. While Danault’s offensive woes have kept him away from the $6-plus million AAV range commanded by the likes of Gabriel Landeskog and Taylor Hall, his acumen in high-leverage situations would make him, at worst, the second-best centre on the Habs for the next few years. Five million dollars for five years would be a safe ceiling that rewards Danault for years of punching above his weight, offers the team flexibility to wait-out or move the contract if it becomes a liability, and gives the Canadiens their best one-two combination down the middle since Saku Koivu and Tomas Plekanec.