As I begin this article, let me first extend a sincere ‘Happy Belated Birthday’ to David Desharnais. He turned 30 years old last Wednesday, and it’s fair to say that he’s accomplished a lot in his young life so far.
His hockey story is an inspiring one despite being a diminutive player who went undrafted. After being a prolific scorer in junior hockey, Desharnais had to start out in the ECHL and work his way up through the minors before landing a spot on the big team. As a person, he seems like a great guy. He’s been able to stay out of trouble off of the ice and his teammates really seem to genuinely like him.
But, as it is with sports, I am not here to evaluate David Desharnais, the person. Rather, let’s take a hard look at Desharnais, the player, and his status going forward on the Montreal Canadiens roster. There is still a glaring question that needs to be answered as we get closer to training camp: where does he fit on this team?
That question will elicit a variety of answers from the hockey community. But in the opinion of most Canadiens fans, the answer would be: nowhere. Many, myself included, dislike the way Michel Therrien uses the player, insisting on deploying Desharnais in a top-6 centre role, mostly on the first line with Max Pacioretty.
Even last year, when it looked like the coach had finally seen the light and started Desharnais on the third line (a role in which he seemed to thrive), Therrien reverted back to the status quo when facing adversity (the injury of Carey Price.) By December, Desharnais was, once again, a regular fixture on the team’s top lines and first power-play unit. After giving him a pass at the beginning of the season, this led many fans to turn on Desharnais yet again.
These fans were vindicated when Desharnais missed time at the end of last year, giving Alex Galchenyuk a real chance to be the team’s first line centre. Galchenyuk exploded, ending the season with 30 goals and showing everyone, particularly the coaching staff, that he had arrived and was ready to take the next step in his development. Once the offseason began, I believed that the writing was on the wall signalling that the Canadiens were finally ready to depart with Desharnais and move on with the three more-talented centres better suited to their roles, namely in Galchenyuk, Tomas Plekanec, and Lars Eller.
But then something threw a huge dent into that plan: Eller was traded.
I didn’t mind the trade itself in terms of value. Two late second round picks for a third line centre seemed fair to me. What I didn’t get was Marc Bergevin’s puzzling answer to a reporter’s question, saying that the emergence of Phillip Danault made Lars Eller expendable. Does he really think Danault showed enough that he’s ready to take Eller’s minutes against tough match ups, or was that just a convenient explanation? Either way, he pretty much indicated that the team has plans for that now-vacant third line centre role, with the competion between Danault, speedy forward Torey Mitchell, Jacob De Le Rose, and dark horse prospect Mike McCarron.
So that brings me back to the question that inspired this whole piece: where the hell does David Desharnais fit in on this team?
In my mind, there are two logical positions for him.
The first could be on the wing, likely on the second line. But given Desharnais’ inability to play on the boards and his sub-par skating, there has been reluctance to put him there in the past. With the chip-and-chase system the Canadiens are being coached to play, one can’t help wonder if he could even be effective there in the first place.
Desharnais played the best hockey of his career between two rugged wingers who had the responsibility to battle for pucks, allowing David the freedom to get open and join the cycle. Putting him on the wing and sending him in against defenseman who are twice his size might be a recipe for disaster for the Habs.
The second choice would be to include him in the conversation for the third line centre position, but does his skill set fit there? That position is traditionally occupied by a player who plays a strong two-way game, someone who plays big minutes against the other team’s top lines and can be good for a goal here and there. That perfectly describes someone like the recently traded Lars Eller, but I’m not going to go there.)
While it is true that Desharnais can be productive at distributing the puck, he certainly can’t be described as a steady player defensively. Putting him in that role might exploit his defensive flaws even further, which wouldn’t be good for him or the team.
When quoting DD's point totals be mindful of the high %age of 2nd assists. Primary point % 2014-15 from Puckalytics pic.twitter.com/4VNsvSrd8I
— All Habs (Canadiens) (@AllHabs) February 11, 2016
So, the two places in the line up where Desharnais could fit are tenuous at best. The point is that this is a huge year for David Desharnais and his status with the Montreal Canadiens. Now that he has lost his spot as the team’s first line centre, this is a time where he needs to carve out a defined role on the team and excel there, or he will most likely be packing his bags sooner rather than later.
But as we know, Desharnais has been proving people wrong his entire career. Maybe he is placed into a role and blows everybody away. Maybe he has a lot more to give to this franchise that we haven’t seen to date.
Or perhaps Michel Therrien will flip the switch and put Desharnais back on the first line. Honestly, would that really surprise anyone at this point?