by Christopher Nardella, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine
David Desharnais has been much maligned over his extended tenure as a member of the Montreal Canadiens organization. As his return to full health has occurred, it seems that the looming decision for the Canadiens coaching staff will be more difficult than initially anticipated when Desharnais injured his knee in the third period of a December sixth game against St. Louis.
Presuming complete health throughout the lineup (which is a hefty presumption considering the team’s injury situation over 50 games), it appears as though Desharnais will be relegated to the wing as he was against the Flyers. Even then, places in the lineup seem limited. In the final year of his contract, David Desharnais appears to be on the border line for a spot in the lineup, which doesn’t bode well for his future with the franchise.
Desharnais’ injury allowed for Phillip Danault to lineup in between Max Pacioretty and Alex Radulov, sending his season to the next octave. After beginning the season on the fourth line and producing, Danault filled the first line role which switched hands twice in two games.
Danault, the Victoriaville, Quebec native, has cemented himself as at least a top-nine forward, even a top-six forward, if only in the immediate future. This spot, previously occupied by Desharnais, has pushed the 5-foot-7-inch forward out of the top-nine centre core, and perhaps the centre core at all. Thus is the ruthless business of professional sports.
Alex Galchenyuk has established himself as the Canadiens’ number one centreman for the foreseeable future, taking Desharnais out of his former role as primary offensive centreman. Along with Michael McCarron, the Habs centre core is filled down in the future. This makes the likely presumption that Desharnais won’t be a member of the organization for very long.
With the thought of this being his final season as a Montreal Canadien, the temptation to be forced to make his situation function due to a guaranteed contract might not be there, much to the chagrin of Desharnais himself.
With Galchenyuk, Danault and Tomas Plekanec occupying the top-nine centre roles, along with a potential trade deadline acquisition, it appears that the only spot left for Desharnais is either in a fourth line centre capacity or a bottom-six winger.
First exploring the former option, Michel Therrien has been willing to change the fourth line centre role, delegating Torrey Mitchell to the wing in favour of Jacob De la Rose. This is meant only in the way that Therrien isn’t married to anyone in particular down the middle on the fourth line.
The primary, and frankly sole, function of having Desharnais in the lineup is to produce offence. Having the 5-foot-7-inch centreman being played in that defensive role, with primarily defensive zone starts, won’t be conducive to offensive production. This is even considering the success that numbered line had early on in the season.
With Brian Flynn and Torrey Mitchell being the control variables on the team’s fourth line, speed has been a constant with that line. Despite not having his 40-yard dash numbers, it isn’t difficult to see that the Laurier-Station, Quebec native’s best attribute isn’t his skating ability.
De la Rose, Daniel Carr and Sven Andrighetto are all vying for a roster spot once the team is fully healthy. They are players with superior skating, and in at least one case, puck protection abilities than Desharnais. These players would presumably be more effective in attaining the goal of the fourth line which is maintaining puck possession in the offensive zone.
A hole in this point is presented in the form of McCarron, whose skating ability isn’t quite at an NHL-level at this point. However, the 6-foot-6-inch American’s attributes are much more conducive to playing in a fourth line role. Despite his lack of foot speed, he is proficient in puck protection and brings a physical element makes up, at least in some way, for his inability to close the gap in the form of an intimidating presence.
The Canadiens’ top-nine wings are fully occupied with NHL-caliber players. Aside from Pacioretty, Radulov and Brendan Gallagher, Paul Byron, Andrew Shaw and Artturi Lehkonen round out the first three lines. That said, Desharnais isn’t going to supersede any of those players, barring a cataclysmic slump on their part.
Desharnais’ return to the Canadiens’ lineup doesn’t seem to have any specific date attached to it. Once he does return, there’s no guarantee that there isn’t a spot in the lineup available for him to fill, especially considering how devastated Montreal has been over the past pair of seasons, being one of the most injured teams in the NHL.
However, should he return to a fully healthy incarnation of the Atlantic division-leading Montreal Canadiens, it will be difficult for him to find a place in the lineup where he can consistently play. Despite all of this, Desharnais has been faced with controversy his entire career. First just making to the NHL, and then facing opposition in the form of a majority of the fan base.
With these logical hurdles, no one can fully discount his ability to rise above controversy. That said, the chances that he consistently plays in the Canadiens lineup in the immediate future are limited.