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Canadiens 2017 Top 25 Under 25: #4 Phillip Danault

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Danault proved he is an NHL regular in 2016-17.

New York Rangers v Montreal Canadiens - Game One Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

On February 26, 2016, the Montreal Canadiens traded Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann to the Chicago Blackhawks for prospect Phillip Danault.

Fast forward to the end of the 2016-17 season and Danault has played 102 games with the Canadiens while accumulating 45 points. Combined, Weise and Fleischmann have played 98 games and recorded 21 points in the same timeframe.

It is safe to say Marc Bergevin and co. won that trade; especially when considering that the Canadiens also have the Blackhawks’ second-round pick in 2018 from that transaction.

Danault was the 26th-overall pick by Chicago in 2011. Although he did put up a good offensive year for Victoriaville in the QMJHL, scoring 67 points in 64 games, it was his strong defensive play, which earned him the Guy Carbonneau Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward, that led the Blackhawks to spend their first-round pick on him.

He started the 2016-17 season in the bottom six, fighting for ice time up the middle with the likes of Tomas Plekanec, Alex Galchenyuk, and David Desharnais, but once the latter two went down with injury, Michel Therrien looked to the relatively safe play of Danault to fill a spot in the top six.

On December 12, Danault got promoted to a line with Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov for the first time, and he never looked back.

Image credit: EliteProspects

Danault’s 1081 even-strength minutes were the third-most among forwards with those aforementioned linemates ranking above him. The centreman was also used as a secondary option on the penalty kill (fourth among forwards in time on ice), and found some time on the power play (seventh).

The extra ice time helped him score 13 even-strength goals, tying his most in a single season since leaving junior in 2012-13. He also put up 27 assists, though only 15 of those were primary. That doesn’t mean Danault didn’t earn his final assist count, but it is a lower total than other top-six regulars like Galchenyuk, Pacioretty, Paul Byron, Radulov, and Brendan Gallagher, albeit not by a lot.

Playing with proven offensive options, Danault’s role was to minimize defensive pressure and release his wingers up the board for a counter-attack, as well as to gather the puck behind the opponent’s net and send it around the boards to his wingers. He wasn’t doing the brunt of the work in the offensive zone, but he did his job well.

However, he became a safety blanket for the coaching staff. When Galchenyuk got back from injury, Therrien kept the former Blackhawk in the number-one spot despite Galchenyuk creating much more offensive output in that role. This kept the team’s overall goal production lower than where it was before the injury.

When Claude Julien took over in mid-February, he moved Galchenyuk back to centre. The offensive weapon did produce the points you would expect in that time, but his weaker defensive game soon led to Julien reinstating Danault in the first-line role.

The safe option didn’t pay off in the playoffs, as the team was only able to produce 11 goals in eight games, with Danault only able to accumulate two assists. It wasn’t the offensive production the team needed from its number-one centre.

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Despite the relatively low point totals for the position he was playing, Danault was a shot-generation and -suppression machine in both the regular season and playoffs, which gives some justification for playing him with and against top players.

Voting

Of the 24 ballots, 15 had Danault finishing fourth, including the EOTP community vote.

Five placed Danault third and four others placed him fifth. Danault was the first player in this year’s countdown to be a consensus top-five player.

Top 25 Under 25 History

Danault jumps up six spots in his second year of this project. This is the highest Danault has ever finished on any Top 25. He finished ninth for the Blackhawks after the 2015-16 campaign on sister site Second City Hockey.

Strengths

All of Danault’s strongest assets enable him to play a responsible transition game while minimizing mistakes.

The centreman has good acceleration, which allows him to track opponents while on the backcheck. He has good body positioning, always staying close to his man and is therefore able to keep opponents from finding inside lanes.

Image credit: HockeyViz

Danault’s relative-shots-against heat map shows that his team is able to keep slot shots down at a much higher rate while he is on the ice.

After retrieving the puck, he can use his hard first pass to release his wingers on a counter-attack or use his acceleration to carry the puck and gain the offensive zone.

He isn’t the flashiest puck-handler, but he has good control of his skating and balance, allowing him to get to areas quickly and catch opponents trying to set their positioning on him off guard.

The Canadiens’ centreman isn’t the prototypical “shutdown” forward, but his hockey IQ is among the very best on the team. His ability to read the play in his defensive zone, make smart passes up the ice, and relentlessly forecheck all led to a near-elite 55.5 Corsi-for percentage last season.

Weaknesses

Danault does an excellent job at pinning his opponents in their own zone, but his ability to turn pressure into scoring plays has not been great to this point of his professional career.

Starting in 2011-12, Danault played parts of five seasons in the AHL with the Chicago Blackhawks’ farm team, the Rockford IceHogs. In 160 regular-season games, Danault amassed only 68 points. Between 2013 and 2015 Danault spent two full seasons in the AHL where he scored 26 and 38 points, finishing 12th and fourth on his team, respectively.

His minor-league career carries a 0.42 points-per-game average. In the NHL, he has been quite close to that number after two seasons, at 0.37 points per game.

Danault is always focused on making the optimal play and therefore rarely shoots the puck. That even goes back to his junior days. His 1.5 even-strength shots per game last season is quite low given the amount of time he spent in the offensive zone, especially when considering he had a playmaker like Radulov on his wing for a large part of the season.

He doesn’t have the creativity of an offensive centreman, and he won't be able to create plays out of nothing. He is able to use his speed to get in good position, but if checked, instead of attempting a cross-ice pass or making a deke to create an offensive chance he will simply push the puck up along the boards to keep it away from the opposition.

The 24-year-old still has time to grow offensively, but so far the signs show that unless he’s playing with top-end wingers he will produce offence at a third-line level.

Projection

Last season Danault proved he is an NHL regular. He was able to check top competition and mesh with skilled players. His on-ice shot generation is excellent even without Pacioretty, but his offensive-zone play does not resemble that of a first- or second-line centre.

However, with his natural shutdown ability, Danault should be able to settle in as a perfect middle-six possession centre.

Expect him to get shifted around the top three lines while taking primary penalty-killing minutes early on in the season as Julien tries to find the right fit for the forward group. He may get more ice time than last season, but may not be flanked by such skilled wingers in his second full year with the team, so his point totals probably aren’t going to see an improvement.

Ideally, he is used in offensive-zone starts against top possession players to try to limit offensive rushes, or in the defensive zone against secondary options to help move the puck toward the other end.

He could be a perfect complement to Jonathan Drouin on a secondary line, giving the skilled winger opportunities against weaker competition and working to keep him churning in the offensive zone.

Phillip Danault has shown his versatility in his first full season with the team, and no matter what role he is asked to fill, he should be a fixture in the Habs’ middle six for years to come.