MONTREAL — Dale Weise stood by his locker, hands on his hips, dressed in a Canadiens onesie and wearing an incredulous look on his face. He had just registered his 14th goal and 21st point in a 2015-16 season that was 32 games old, and he was being asked by a veteran reporter to explain how it was possible a player like him could be providing so much offence.
A player like him. A former fourth-round pick of the New York Rangers turned frequently scratched NHLer. A player who was viewed as nothing more than a lightweight pugilist by John Tortorella and the Vancouver Canucks. A player who was widely perceived to be topping out at 10 goals and 29 points in 79 games in his first full season with Montreal (2014-15).
The reporter even used the words “fourth-line player,” and asked Weise if he had to pinch himself.
Weise responded, “I’m not pinching myself, I don’t know what to tell you.”
The reporter, somewhat dissatisfied with the response, shrugged. But recognizing he struck a nerve, he said ‘OK,’ and moved on to the next scrum.
I lingered, sensing Weise had more to say.
“Pinching myself? Does he not realize I’m in the (expletive) NHL,” he asked. “He’s making it sound like it’s magic I somehow managed to score these goals. I’ve been scoring goals my whole life. How does he think I got here?”
Mindset isn’t everything, but it is something. Weise wouldn’t have scored those goals if he didn’t believe he could. And successful teams want players who are bold enough to bet on themselves. They want players who refuse to view their successes or failures as luck propositions, players who will be insulted by the suggestion they’re doing something unbelievable or beyond their perceived capabilities.
Which brings us to Phillip Danault.
You’d be mistaken if you thought the Canadiens had an issue with Danault taking umbrage at the suggestion he shouldn’t centre one of Montreal’s top-two lines moving forward. They’d have been more perturbed had he not fought against that idea — especially after he spent the last two seasons helping Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar to career-high production while establishing himself as a Selke Trophy contender. He’s 27 years old and in his prime, just like Weise was in 2015, and they’d never want or expect him to just roll over for a couple of kids who stole his thunder over a 10-game sample this summer.
“In the playoffs, several things changed and the coach wanted to do certain things to win,” he said during his post-season conference call Tuesday. “We were really thinking short-term and the team wanted to get a look at certain players like [20-year-old Jesperi] Kotkaniemi, who did very well. It made my role a bit unclear moving forward and, from what I saw in the playoffs, I was in a very defensive role.
“That’s my bread and butter, but I know I can bring more. I proved that the last two years.”
It wasn’t some happy accident Danault managed 100 points over 152 games while shutting down the NHL’s best night in, night out the last two seasons. That was him playing to his potential as a former first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be him moving forward — with at least a few years ahead of him before his skills naturally diminish.
That’s the Danault Claude Julien expects to see at next training camp.
Sure, the coach knows the unexpected August emergence of Kotkaniemi, a sophomore who scored just two goals in 36 games before being demoted to the AHL, is a ray of sunshine peeking through the cloud the Canadiens have been under for two-and-a-half decades of centre futility. He’s unquestionably aware that Kotkaniemi and 21-year-old Nick Suzuki represent a clear forecast for the foreseeable future, especially after watching them combine for eight of the 23 goals the Canadiens managed in the playoffs. And he was likely nodding his head in agreement when he heard general manager Marc Bergevin refer to both players as centres he can build around for upwards of 15 years.
But Julien doesn’t expect Danault to just bow down to the kids, nor does he believe the Victoriaville, Que., should.
“In today’s hockey, you need everyone to produce,” Julien said. “When I see what Phil has done for years, a Suzuki offering these performances and Kotkaniemi doing the same thing, I see the depth we need at centre. It’s out of the question that I’m going to go to Phillip and say, ‘Listen, I don’t want you to score goals, I simply want you to be a player who defends.’ Since I arrived (in 2017), he’s almost always been played against the opposition’s best lines, and he’s been capable of contributing at both ends of the ice. That’s what I expect from him and I hope it continues.”
With Danault entering the final year of a contract that pays him just over $3 million per season, you know he’s committed. This is his best opportunity to secure his future, and he’s not going to waste it.
But if Danault’s comments — that he loves producing offence and needs to be in a role that permits him to do it — were viewed as anything other than expressions of pride and self-belief, they shouldn’t be. Nor should they be construed as selfish, because, as Julien noted, he’s always been a team player.
“You have players who are willing to come in and do what’s best for the team, and that’s what Phil has done,” the coach said. “If he can be a good two-way centreman, we’re in good shape here.”
That Danault believes he can be more, that he’s dedicated to being more, is what you want.
“I know I can reach another level,” he said, and we’ll see if he can deliver.