Montreal Canadiens: Is It Time To Move Phillip Danault Off First Line?

MONTREAL, QC - FEBRUARY 27: Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
MONTREAL, QC - FEBRUARY 27: Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

The Montreal Canadiens are playing mostly meaningless games until the end of the season. Is it time to shake things up and move Phillip Danault off the top line?

The Montreal Canadiens are on their way to missing the playoffs for the third consecutive season. They have had some solid stretches of play this year, but a pair of eight game losing streaks is enough to tell you this team is not good enough to make it to the postseason. They are likely to finish in the bottom ten of the NHL standings and have themselves a top ten pick at the draft they host in June.

That will be great as they have a chance to add yet another top prospect to an already deep and talented prospect pool. Being in the midst of a playoff chase would certainly be more exciting than this trudging along to the end of the season over the next 15 games, but playoff games will not be played at the Bell Centre for the fourth time in the past five years.

There have been some positives along the way. The rapid development of Nick Suzuki has been among the best things to watch as a fan of the Canadiens this season. The continued strong play from Shea Weber whose longevity has been questioned every few months has been encouraging. Joel Armia is showing he has 25-30 goal potential if he can stay healthy. And, umm. Jeeze, is that it?

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Well, one other positive the past two seasons has been the strong play of the Canadiens top line. Tomas Tatar stepped into the Habs lineup a complete question mark last season but has fit seamlessly with Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher. The trio have been the best possession line in hockey this season and can shut down just about anyone they face.

However, I can not help but question if Phillip Danault is the right centre for this line. Yes, he is terrific defensively and is the best player to have on the ice when protecting a lead late in a game. But can he keep up with Tatar and Gallagher offensively?

Every time I look at the numbers, I feel like this line should be putting more pucks in the net. Tatar is having a career year and Gallagher is scoring at a 30 goal pace for the third straight year. However, Danault has 13 goals and 45 points in 67 games. Those are solid numbers, but I can’t help but wonder if this line could be even more dangerous if they had a centre that was capable of scoring more than 55 points.

Tatar has 61 points in 67 games and already beat his career high that he set last year. He is on pace for 75 points. Gallagher has 21 goals and 41 points in 56 games, having missed a handful of games with a concussion. He is scoring at a pace that would see him finish with 31 goals and 60 points over a full season.

Danault, meanwhile is on pace for 16 goals and 55 points over 82 games. The 27 year old centre is a terrific defensive player and a great asset for the Canadiens. I am by no means suggesting he is a bad NHL player, I just wonder if he belongs on the first line.

When Danault was first acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks along with a second round pick for Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise in a classic Marc Bergevin theft, he was expected to be a third line centre in the future. He was quickly forced to be a first line centre because there were no other options, but he has still never scored more than 13 goals. He has 13 right now and is sure to set a career best this year, but is that enough from a first line centre?

You can’t ask for more defensively from Danault, but it is fair to ask for more offence if he is between two of your most gifted offensive players.

With 15 games to play in a non-playoff season, now is the time to experiment with that line. Instead of having Danault centre Tatar and Gallagher, why not try Suzuki in that spot? The 20 year old certainly isn’t as great defensively as Danault, but he has far better natural offensive instincts and could really take off offensively with the best wingers on the team.

This would move Danault down the lineup, but he could play a purely shutdown role with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen. We keep wanting to see more offence from Lehkonen as well, but it hasn’t arrived, so why not put them together and just ask them to stop the other team from scoring. That is clearly what they both do best and Byron is no slouch in his own zone either.

The top line of Tatar, Danault and Gallagher is one of the few things that has worked this season. However, it is possible that Suzuki could fit even better on that line, and Danault could become one of the best third line centers in the league if given shutdown wingers and a purely defensive role.

With 15 games to play in a lost season, why not try it out? If it works, it would give the Habs a better chance at finally making the playoffs next year. If it doesn’t work out, just fo back to the original top line that has worked just fine all along.

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The Canadiens have nothing to lose but more games. At this point, that just helps them secure a better draft pick. It’s time to experiment a little.