The drill is simple: Pick up a pass at centre ice, pass it back to the coach, get it back coming over the blue line and take a shot as you approach the net.
In this case, Phillip Danault is shooting against a shooter tutor. Easy enough.
But Danault flubs his shot and misses the net.
You can see the anger rising in him as he curls back up ice in a full sprint to the other end, and it boils over in the form of him launching his stick across the zone as he’s slashing over the other blue line.
Now, I’m not suggesting we read too deeply into that. At least not beyond what it reveals, which is that the 27-year-old Victoriaville, Que., native has a penchant for being a perfectionist, and he also tends to always stand out as one of the most competitive players on the ice.
And I’m only bringing this little fit up as an example because, if they’re going to have any chance of beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in their play-in series this coming August, the Montreal Canadiens are going to need this version of Danault—a player who expects more of himself. Because for as good of a player as Danault has become, he needs to be even better this summer.
Find a player participating in the NHL’s 24-team tournament for the Stanley Cup who will have a tougher assignment than Montreal’s top centre. Good luck. Whatever time Danault doesn’t spend matched up with Sidney Crosby is likely to be spent facing off against Evgeni Malkin.
And if you want a sense for how tough a chore that will be, Canadiens goaltender Carey Price summed it up pretty well when he was asked on Monday what approach his team should take to keep Pittsburgh’s best players from producing on the power play.
“We could ask them nicely to stay at the hotel for the games,” Price quipped.
Naturally, neither Crosby nor Malkin will oblige. And it’s fair to say that they’ll be equally dangerous at five-on-five, which is where Danault must come up as a difference maker for the Canadiens.
It’s a challenge he feels his line, with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar, is equipped to handle.
“I think defensively we have to have confidence in each other, we have to back each other up well,” Danault said last week. “We know their offence is solid. They have the best players in the playoffs in Crosby and Malkin. They’re excellent players. I think if we can have confidence in each other defensively, and Price can be huge—without putting too much pressure on him—we’ll be there to help him… We have an incredible opportunity and we’re going to embrace it and play to our identity.”
The identity Danault has carved out for himself over the past two seasons is as one of the most reliable centres in the game. Last year, he finished seventh in the voting for the Selke Trophy, which is annually awarded to the “forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game,” and the expectation is, even though he won’t be named a finalist, he could be amongst the top-five vote-getters this year.
It’s been a steady climb for Danault, who was drafted 26th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks back in 2011. He spent parts of five seasons in the American Hockey League on his way towards establishing himself as an NHL regular.
But it was after Danault was traded to Montreal—in February of 2016—that he began to ascend at an exponential rate. And by the time Canadiens coach Claude Julien was hired, in February of 2017, Danault was that much closer to becoming the player we’ve seen over the last two seasons.
“I think this guy, when I showed up here, was a real young player,” said Julien last week. “I’m not sure if it was just his second or third year in the league, but he was one of those young players that you could see a lot of potential. When I met with him, he kept talking about the fact that he really liked a guy like Patrice Bergeron’s game and knew I had coached him, so it was easy for me to work with this guy and help him become a real reliable player. So what I’ve seen in the years I’ve been here is a guy that, with experience, with maturity, and with time and practice is getting better all the time at becoming a good two-way player.”
That’s a key caveat.
Danault cares as much about producing on offence as he does shutting down the opposition’s best players, though he doesn’t necessarily get enough credit for that.
At least not according to young Canadiens centreman Ryan Poehling, who’s been practising over the last four days as part of a smaller group with Danault, Victor Mete, Cale Fleury and Cayden Primeau.
“He’s one of the core guys who produces offensively for this team, and I think he doesn’t get as much credit,” said Poehling on Monday. “But I don’t think it fazes him, either. It’s tough to play both ways when you’re doing the things he can do. When you waste as much energy defensively and still produce the way he does, I think it’s definitely special.”
Danault has registered 25 goals and 75 points in his last 153 games, and that’s in spite of the fact that he’s ritually lined up against the best players in the world and been used sparingly on the power play over the last two seasons.
Meanwhile, at five-on-five, Danault’s been the driving force of a line that has controlled 62 per cent of the shot attempts and scored 76 goals but allowed only 46 (according to naturalstattrick.com) over that time.
Naturally, Julien is going to rely heavily on the Tatar-Danault-Gallagher line for these summer games, and he’ll be depending on Danault to lead a group of centres (in Max Domi, Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Jake Evans) that doesn’t have any NHL playoff experience.
“I’d say that in the case of Phillip, he takes great pride in being good at both ends of the ice,” said Julien. “I hope his line will be good to the point where they’ll spend much more time in the offensive zone than in the defensive zone. That will mean that if he’s playing against a guy like Crosby, Crosby will have to spend more time defending than attacking.”
For Danault’s part, he’s not treating this assignment any different than he would if he were lining up against any other top centre in the league.
“I’m going to prepare the same way as every single game during the year,” he said. “I play against big lines. It’s my role, I take pride in this. We take pride in this as a line, as a team too.
“Obviously I know Crosby’s a really, really good player offensively, defensively, he’s a two-way forward. So it’s going to be a big challenge, probably one of the biggest of my career so far, so I’m going to embrace it. It’s going to be fun, and like I said, I want to embrace the challenge.”
On facing Crosby and Malkin, Danault said, “Crosby is more of a two-way player, and I’d say Malkin is more offensive, but the challenge will be the same.”
“I’ve never played against them in the playoffs, so it might take a bit of adaptation,” Danault added. “But I’m going to embrace the challenge, go as deep as I can and give it my all.”
Of that, there is little doubt.