Canadiens’ Danault proving Bergevin right with every passing game

Phillip Danault and Artturi Lehkonen scored twice and the Montreal Canadiens cruised past the Winnipeg Jets 7-4 on Wednesday night.

I’ll never forget the conviction in his voice.

Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin had just finished holding court with reporters in San Jose on what was a very quiet trade deadline day for his team last season. Everyone scattered before we did a quick one-on-one interview together, and after we wrapped up he turned to me and said, “We got a hell of a player, you’re going to see.”

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Bergevin was talking about the move he had made three days prior to the deadline to acquire 23-year-old centre Phillip Danault (and a 2018 second-round pick) from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for veteran forwards Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann.

I had nothing but his word to go on.

Danault was 32 games into his NHL career, with a goal, four assists and a minus-3 to show for his efforts.

One Western Conference scout I spoke with said the 26th pick in 2011 projected as an effective third-liner at best.

Danault appeared to fit that bill through 21 games to finish the season with Montreal.

But watching him open the scoring 57 seconds into the Canadiens’ 7-4 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday to record his 20th point of this season, I couldn’t help but remark how far this player has come in such a short span.

And what Danault pulled off in the second period—an end-to-end rush that was capped by him embarrassing defenceman Dustin Byfuglien before depositing the puck behind goaltender Michael Hutchinson to send Jets coach Paul Maurice into a frenzy—I thought of Bergevin eventually finding me at some point this season to say, “I told you so.”

His official statement on the day he made the trade read as follows:

“Phillip Danault is a young and gifted player who will be part of our core group of young forwards for many years to come. I am very pleased to have him join our organization. As a member of the Blackhawks management group, I was instrumental in the selection of Phillip in the first round of the 2011 NHL Draft.”

Bergevin knew then what he knows now, but not even he could’ve predicted the impact Danault would have through half a season of Atlantic Division-leading hockey for the injury-riddled Canadiens.

It took just one game for the native of Victoriaville, Que., to unseat Tomas Plekanec as the team’s No. 1 centre after Alex Galcheyuk went down with a knee injury.

Danault has since scored four goals and eight assists in 15 games.

But what he’s done at the other end of the rink in that time has been just as impressive, making him a player the Canadiens have been able to depend on for over 17 minutes per game.

On Wednesday, Danault led all Canadiens forwards in ice time with 20:16, and he pulled back 12 of 20 faceoffs he took in the game.

He also played a big hand in helping the Canadiens kill off three of four penalties, and he came up large towards the end of the game–as the Jets pushed for another goal from down by three.

It was a performance that added context to Nick Kypreos’ Hockey Night in Canada report that the Canadiens could part ways with Plekanec as early as this deadline.

For years, the 34-year-old Czech has handled the heavy lifting on the defensive side of the puck for Montreal. He’s done a pretty good job in that regard this season, shutting down the opposition’s best forwards on a fairly consistent basis.

But offence has been very hard to come by for Plekanec of late.

As Elliotte Friedman pointed out in his 30 Thoughts column this week, part of the reason Plekanec had only managed four goals and 13 assists coming into Wednesday’s game (he scored Montreal’s third goal against the Jets) was due to the fact that he had started only 38 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone.

With the way Danault is playing this year, you can’t help but wonder if he can take on Plekanec’s role and be more successful with it.

How Danault is used in the coming weeks will be very telling.

Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said Wednesday morning that there’s a good chance Galchenyuk returns for Saturday’s home game against the New York Rangers.

Forward Andrew Shaw, who suffered a concussion on Dec. 12, is on his way back, too.

Both players will return to a team that’s deeper as a result of the progress young players like Danault have made.

Through 42 games, the kid has made his GM look like a genius–especially when you consider that Weise has been in and out of Philadelphia’s lineup as a frequent healthy scratch and that Fleischmann failed to nail down a job with an NHL club this season.

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