MONTREAL — Marc Bergevin had wrapped up 20-minute scrums in both of Quebec’s official languages and completed one-on-one interviews with all the major television outlets, but he still had one more thing he wanted to get off his chest.
"We got a real player in that trade with Chicago," the Montreal Canadiens’ general manager said once all the cameras had clicked off and most of the reporters had retreated. "You’re going to see, he checks all the boxes. He’s a real good player."
It was trade deadline day, on April 29, 2016, and we were in San Jose following a Canadiens team that had flamed out of the playoff race months prior. Goaltender Carey Price’s long absence with a knee injury had turned the season into a debacle and Bergevin knew there was nothing he could do to save it. He wasn’t particularly pleased about having to answer questions about having to be a seller on the market for the first time in his four years as GM, but he was cordial about it. He took the hits, expressed his disappointment and was just about ready to leave when he went out of his way to slip in that last comment about Phillip Danault to the few lingering reporters.
It was three days prior to the deadline that Bergevin had moved pending free agents Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann to the Chicago Blackhawks for a 2018 second-round pick and Danault. The thinking at the time was that the draft pick was a valuable acquisition and that the 23-year-old former first-rounder wasn’t just a throw in, but it was certainly influenced by how excited Bergevin was to get his hands on a player he had been so familiar with.
"Phillip Danault is a young and gifted player who will be part of our core group of young forwards for many years to come," said Bergevin on April 26, 2016. "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."
It was this type of comment — like the one he made on deadline day — that made you wonder if Bergevin was overestimating what Danault could do at this level. Looking at things objectively, the kid who was chosen 26th overall by Chicago had barely squeezed himself into 32 games in four seasons with the Blackhawks. He wasn’t an explosive scorer in junior, he wasn’t offering better than second-line production at the AHL level, and he hadn’t produced more than a goal and four assists in the NHL. The words "gifted," and "core player," came across as hyperbolic.
Two and a half seasons later, concerns about Bergevin’s evaluation hadn’t necessarily dissipated. You had to wonder if Danault’s 13-goal, 40-point performance between stud producers Max Pacioretty and Alex Radulov in 2016-17 was setting him up to be overpaid once his contract expired in 2018. There were concerns as to if he’d be overvalued as the team’s (by default) top-two-way centre, if an abundance of cap space would make a heftier-than-expected payday digestible and justifiable, and if arbitration rights gave him enough leverage to squeeze that much more juice out of the lemon. Instead, Bergevin and Danault agreed to a deal on Sunday that probably saved the Canadiens a few dollars.
Sure, the template for his three-year, $9.249 million contract had been established when the Ottawa Senators signed Jean-Gabriel Pageau to a three-year, $9.3 million deal in July of 2017, but all the factors listed above could’ve generated a different outcome.
Still, with Danault's performance between Pacioretty and Radulov a year ago inflating his value, with his position as a default go-to centre, with Bergevin loving the player and the Habs having a boatload of capspace, it felt like he might get a bit too much $ or a year too many.
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) July 16, 2018
This is one Bergevin — and Canadiens fans — should be happy about. Though he may not be a top-tier offensive threat, Danault has registered 24 goals and 70 points in 155 games with Montreal and has proven to be a versatile and diligent worker at both ends of the ice. He can play up and down the lineup and he brings the right attitude to the rink every time he shows up. It’s players like him who are going to help keep the Canadiens competitive, and the three-year term he signed for buys them some time to properly develop centre prospects like Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling among others.
There were some concerns about Danault’s playing future when residual concussion symptoms lingered and limited him to just 52 games this past season. But the Canadiens were cautious with his recovery and awarding him this deal signifies that they believe he’ll be ready to contribute as expected when the puck drops for the 2018-19 campaign.
Danault is confident, too.
"I’m 100 per cent," he said from his June 28 charity golf event. "Everything is great. I’m training, I’m skating. It’s all good."
Provided it truly is, he should be able to provide good bang for the buck. Heck, even if the 25-year-old doesn’t grow much as a player between now and the expiration of his deal, this is still likely to go down as one of the better moves Bergevin has made.
It could end up being right up there with the one he made to acquire Danault in the first place.