Perhaps it was a preemptive strike from five or six of the 20 or so reporters on hand at Thursday’s practice to focus on David Desharnais’ lack of production while his Montreal Canadiens are currently enjoying their first three-game winning streak since November, but most of the team’s fans believe it was long overdue.
Who can blame them?
The five-foot-eight native of Laurier-Station, QC., has just seven points in his last 33 games, none of which have come on the power play — though he remains a fixture on the team’s top unit.
The Habs Eyes on the Prize fan-blog pointed out earlier this week that, in terms of power-play production, Desharnais ranks 184th out of 189 players who have been given more than 100 minutes of time on ice with the man-advantage this season.
"He’s gotta shoot the puck," Craig Ramsay told Sportsnet earlier this week. "You don’t want to be predictable."
Ramsay was hired by the Canadiens last summer as a consultant to the coaching staff last, specifically employed to put his 20 years of NHL coaching experience and his specialty in power-play strategy to good use for a team that desperately needed help in the department.
The Canadiens followed up finishing with the NHL’s 25th-best power play last season (16 per cent) by scoring on just two of 36 chances in the playoffs.
"When I was in Boston, we had Marc Savard — who was an exceptional playmaker," Ramsay continued. "But he got so fed up of me telling him to shoot all the time that he finally did it just to prove me wrong. He fired a monster slap shot under the bar and barked at me, ‘like that, Rammer?’ And I responded: ‘Exactly, dummy!’"
Ramsay broke out laughing, but his point resonated. This has always been the knock on Desharnais, who’s proven, albeit far too infrequently, he has a good enough shot to score goals.
Goals on precisely 73 of his 482 shots (15.1 per cent) in 394 NHL games make him one of the more efficient shooters on his team.
The stat also says he’s a selective shooter, but the eye-test reveals he’s a good one, too.
"You have to shoot to get some bounces and create some scoring chances," said Desharnais Thursday. "I have to put that in my mind and go out and execute."
It’s a thought he needs to focus on, especially as he prepares to play all of his shifts at even strength alongside Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty for an eighth consecutive game — this one to be played in Buffalo Friday.
The two haven’t combined for any goals over their last seven games (Desharnais did not factor into the only one Pacioretty scored over that stretch).
It raises the question: Why does Canadiens coach Michel Therrien keep going back to this combination?
"Guys like Desharnais and Pacioretty have had success together for years and I still have confidence they’ll have it," said the coach in French. "It’s a duo that has always found a way to perform and produce, and that’s why I have confidence in them."
Desharnais and Pacioretty climbed the ranks together. They were a dynamic duo in the AHL before they produced magic together in the 2011-12 season with the Canadiens, combining for 125 points with Erik Cole to their right. And they’ve shared chemistry since.
But the team was undeniably best served earlier this season when Desharnais was playing as the team’s third-line centre between Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise, eating up more favourable matchups than the ones he’s being forced into with Pacioretty to his left.
Playing an average of 14:24, Desharnais produced 14 points in his first 16 games to help the Canadiens to first place in the NHL. He’s averaged 17:46 since joining Pacioretty on the top line seven games ago.
David Desharnais has points in 14 of 24 games when playing less than 16:00. When playing more, he has points in 5 of 31 games. #Habs
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) February 11, 2016
"I gave those guys opportunity to produce offensively, putting them on the power play, [putting] them on offensive-zone face offs as much as we can," said Therrien. "They want to produce. The thing they need to focus on is probably better decisions with the puck, better support. Those are the things they need to focus on to get success."
But if Desharnais and Pacioretty fail to produce in Buffalo and the Canadiens lose a game they’re expected to win, the heat will only be turned up on both players and the coach. Justifiably so.