There isn’t much that binds the Montreal Canadiens and Los Angeles Kings in the modern era. Geographically, they’re on opposite sides of the continent. And barring another Stanley Cup Final matchup, they meet just twice a year.
But this season there’s a link in Phillip Danault, who after six seasons with the Canadiens signed a six-year, $33 million contract in Los Angeles over the summer. Just seven games in, his impact is already being felt with the Kings -- while his former team is feeling the ripple effect of his departure.
The Kings already have a first-line centre in Anze Kopitar, and he’s been a perennial Selke contender through much of his career. But over the past few years, the Kings’ first line centre has been tasked with playing upwards of 20 minutes a night on average. Last year, in all situations, Kopitar scored 2.53 points per 60 which, while consistent with his 2019-20 performance and a step forward from 2018-19, is still below his career average rate. And when it came to offensive quality at even strength, Kopitar’s expected goal rate dipped below break-even to 48 per cent while he was facing top competition. He was also often being deployed for draws outside of the offensive zone.
It’s possible that seeing Kopitar’s scoring touch and two-way game starting to slide were signs of the inevitable age-related decline all players face, (which at 34 years old, would be consistent with aging curves done by Cam Lawrence, now of the Columbus Blue Jackets, as well as Luke and Josh Younggren of Evolving-Hockey). That, along with the captain’s challenging role on a Kings team that hasn’t been without its struggles as they retool, likely weighed on his game last year in particular.
That’s where bringing in Danault helps.
Danault’s offence generally hasn’t popped off the scoresheet; he’s only reached the 50-point marker once in his career. That’s probably hurt his Selke chances over the years, since many voters weigh scoring in an effort to find the best two-way forward. But Danault’s play on both ends, with a particular emphasis on what he can do in the defensive zone, should keep him right in the conversation. He’s an aggressive forechecker who battles for possession, and he can keep hold of the puck and cycle in the offensive zone.
Over the years in Montreal, Danault saw heavy defensive zone usage. His face-off deployment in the offensive zone at even strength generally has only been around 30 per cent. Plus, he’s often been tasked with shutting down top competition. Despite that challenging role, the Canadiens generated the majority of the expected goal share with him on the ice over the past few seasons.
That was put on display through Montreal’s playoff run to the Stanley Cup Final; the top-six trio of Danault, Brendan Gallagher, and Artturi Lehkonen pushed play forward with a 64.6 expected goal rate at even strength in tough minutes.
Now with the Kings, Danault is helping shoulder some of Kopitar’s workload, which is giving the number one centre a boost.
So far, Kopitar’s minutes have slightly decreased; his average ice time is down by about 25 seconds from last year and he’s seeing less ice while short-handed (although, the coaches haven’t completely stuck to the plan keeping him to fewer minutes each game).
As for where each player starts their shifts, Danault initially was taking on the bulk of the defensive zone draws in the Kings' first few outings, but that’s evened out more-so over the last couple of games. It’s worth noting that the former Hab was swayed, in part to move to a new team, with the chance more offensive opportunity, so it’s not entirely surprising that he isn’t only being buried in his own end to start each shift. Still, almost 40 per cent of Kopitar’s face-off deployments are in the offensive zone this season which is an improvement from last year. And now it’s Danault taking on slightly tougher competition, freeing the team’s first-line centre up a bit more.
That’s been highlighted by Kopitar’s hot start on the score sheet; at even strength he has five goals and six points in seven games while primarily skating with Viktor Arvidsson and Dustin Brown on the first line. Scoring at this rate probably isn't sustainable, but what is encouraging is his 54 per cent expected goals rate through those minutes which, if maintained, should continue leading to positive results.
With Danault on the ice, the Kings haven’t driven play quite as much as they have with their leading trio -- although, that’s improved now that Danault is skating alongside Adrian Kempe and Alex Iafallo the past few games. Still, throughout Danault minutes, the team is cycling in the offensive zone and taking about 60 per cent of the shot share.
Against Winnipeg Thursday night at 5-on-5, the Kings created 16 shot attempts for with Danault on the ice -- with five coming from the slot (one of which ended up in the back of the net courtesy of Kempe). On the other end of the ice, they conceded just four attempts, and all but one were kept outside of the home plate area in front of the net.
While Danault’s clicking with his new team in Los Angeles, his former team in Montreal has struggled at points in the early goings of the season without him. He wasn’t the only key loss; the Canadiens also are without Shea Weber all season, and Carey Price to start, so of course the Habs’ problems are bigger than just one departure. But having said that, the plans to replace Danault haven’t quite gone smoothly. We looked at the impact this player has had on his new team, so what gaps has he created on his former roster?
The Canadiens were aware they could lose their shutdown centre to free agency, and when facing that possibility, GM Marc Bergevin noted that the team could lean on Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Jake Evans. The former is now playing for the Hurricanes after leaving via offer sheet (ultimately another centre was acquired in Christian Dvorak) and Montreal has looked within to solve that gap in their lineup with a more defensive role for Nick Suzuki. And, Suzuki’s shown over the past two seasons now that he can limit his opponents from creating a high volume of shots and quality chances against -- and he’s continued that so far this year. But he isn’t matching up as well offensively at even strength, pushing his on ice numbers below break-even.
Without Danault on the next line, the pressure is on Suzuki to push through those minutes.
There’s obviously time for Suzuki to find his footing in this role -- maybe he’s oversimplified knowing that he has to face more defensive pressure. Or, like Los Angeles did for Kopitar, the answer could be bringing in help to shoulder this workload so the Montreal's best find themselves in positions to succeed.
What is clear this early on, though, is that Danault’s making waves to open this season -- both for the team he joined and the club he departed.
Data via Sportlogiq