Eggs Bennett Issue 21-01
August 28, 2021
Can the Habs survive the end of the Danault line? This is one of the most pressing storylines for fans and pundits with Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault having departed in free agency. But is the situation as dire as it might appear?
How did we get here?
Danault joined the Habs at the 2016 trade deadline. In one of the best deals of Bergevin’s tenure, he flipped Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann to Chicago for Danault and a 2018 2nd round draft pick. Danault was unknown to fans, but we still knew it was a great trade. Any time you can get a prospect and a pick for spare parts at the deadline, you pull the trigger.
Today we know that trade yielded one of the best 200-foot centres in the game and Alexander Romanov, a young defenceman with a ton of potential. It was a sweet deal.
That summer (2016) the Habs signed Alex Radulov, and for a season we saw a line comprised of the young Danault between Max Pacioretty and Radulov. The line worked, but Radulov was the straw that stirred the drink, setting up Pacioretty on the regular while Danault was solid in his own end and retrieving pucks in the offensive zone.
Danault was 24 years old in the 2016-17 season and scored 13 goals and 27 assists for 40 points. His average TOI was 15:34. Tomas Plekanec was still on the team and had the most TOI amongst centres. That was the year David Desharnais was traded to Edmonton at the trade deadline.
In the summer of 2017 Radulov moved on, and then on the eve of the 2018-19 training camp Pacioretty was moved to Vegas in another impressive Bergevin trade. The return was Nick Suzuki, a 2nd round pick in 2019 and Tomas Tatar. Following another trade of picks, the 2nd became Mattias Norlinder who will soon try to make his mark in training camp.
Tatar was added to the deal to make the salary work. Vegas had dealt for him at the previous deadline, only to have him spend a good portion of their playoff run in the press box. Tatar was eager to start over in Montreal. Shortly thereafter the Tatar-Danault-Gallagher line was born. Coach Claude Julien was believed to be trying to replicate Boston’s Perfection Line with lower caliber players. In short, it worked.
For the better part of three seasons, the line was one of the league’s analytics darlings. They were strong in all three zones, controlled play, and contributed on the score sheet. When you consider that reputation, it’s hard to fathom the decision to let two-thirds of the line walk.
It’s the end of the world as we know it…
The trio that has been most used line in Montreal for several seasons is missing a duo. But the situation is not dire, in my view. It might well be the end of the world as we know it, but I feel fine.
The Danault line had already been dismantled on the team that went to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Danault line worked so well because the sum was better than each of the parts, but the parts were separated before anyone left town. The Habs played 22 games in the 2020-21 playoffs and Tatar played in just five of them. His average TOI for those games was less than 14 minutes and he had just one assist. Several players rotated in and out of that line following Tatar’s removal, and they were still effective as a shutdown line, while not being less of an offensive threat than they were with him.
Fans are asking if Mike Hoffman can replace Tatar’s scoring. That’s the wrong question, because Hoffman is not really Tatar’s replacement. Tatar started the playoffs and Cole Caufield finished them. In 20 playoff games, he had four goals and eight assists. Tatar has appeared in 40 playoff games over his career, scoring six goals and six assists. Yes, you read that right. Caufield has as many points in half as many games.
Caufield replaced Tatar’s points, and then the Canadiens added Mike Hoffman. If there are no changes before camp, this is the best group of wingers the Habs have iced in years. The question is not whether the Habs can survive the end of the Danault line – rather, it’s whether they can survive the loss of Danault.
Youth were making Danault less essential.
As important as Danault was, the entire hockey world knew the Habs needed to add top six centres. It’s why a pivot had to come back in the Pacioretty trade, and it’s why the Habs used their 3rd overall pick in 2018 to draft for need and selected Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Danault as the top centre was not a recipe for success, nor the long-term plan.
This chart outlines Danault’s production thus far in the NHL.
* Traded to MTL at trade deadline. Split season with Chicago.
There are a few things worth noting from this chart about the irreplaceable Danault.
Danault played his first games in the NHL as a 22-year-old. He played 2 games, averaged 12:45 and did not hit the score sheet. Suzuki will be 22 this upcoming season and has two years already under his belt. He has scored 41 points in both seasons and overtook Danault in TOI in his second year.
Kotkaniemi will be 21 this upcoming season and has three seasons to his credit. Is he ready to take over 2C duties? It’s a good question. Danault became the Habs 2C in 2015-16. He scored 40 points playing with Pacioretty and Radulov, their best wingers. He was 24 years old. To date, KK has been allocated third and fourth line minutes with a constant rotation of wingers. His first season was probably the most predictable and he scored 34 points. There is no doubt in my mind that KK is ready to be 2C if they set him up for success as they did Danault.
If we look at the trajectory of all three players, it’s almost impossible to come to the conclusion that Suzuki and KK will not be better players than Danault. The question that remains is whether they can be as effective while also shutting down other lines. I’ll answer that question with another – do they have to?
This is an opportunity for an identity shift.
Do Suzuki and Kotkaniemi have to be Selke nominees for the Habs to be effective down the middle? Both are defensively responsible for their ages, and the flubs we do see are more indicative of youth than irresponsibility. Having your 1C be your shut down guy is not the only model.
Jake Evans might have something to add to the conversation. Evans is 25 going into this season, and it’s his trajectory that probably resembles Danault more than the other two guys. If given a clear role, and two wingers who can also play shut down while chipping in offensively, we may see the evolution of another important centreman in Montreal. Ryan Poehling is another guy who wants in. He just signed his second contract, and it’s his intention to break into the NHL this year.
Speaking of identity, the Habs added two veterans who can play centre in Cedric Paquette and Mathieu Perreault. Those are two guys who know who they are and won’t be griping about losing their role to kids. Those were smart additions.
Four young centres who bring a reputation as strong two-way players. Perhaps none of them will be Phil Danault, but that’s not essential to the Habs success.
Patience is a virtue, they say.
If we’re looking for one of the young centres to step up and be everything Danault was, we’re going to be disappointed. Frankly, we’ll be looking for the wrong thing. But if allowed to develop into their full potential, the sum can actually be better than the parts again. But I’m not sure Bergevin has the patience to wait for that.
At his golf tournament this past week, Ducharme mused there was still time before training camp. Perhaps he was playing with the media, or perhaps Bergevin has an iron in the fire. Only time will tell, but if the Habs begin the season with the kids supported by some wily vets who know their role, perhaps they can survive the loss of Danault just fine.
Anyone else ready for camp?