Much of the learned preseason analysis concerning the Montreal Canadiens – read: talk radio hand-wringing and Internet forum angst – has been about goaltending and the blueline.
You have to pay close attention to pick up a slight thrum over the least talked-about important person in the room: David Desharnais.
He isn’t the team’s highest-paid centre, nor does he possess an outsized personality, but his role – creating offence – is a crucial one, and he’s coming off an iffy year.
If the Habs are going to be any good, they’ll need their most instinctive playmaker and centre of the de facto top line to be appreciably better, a fact Desharnais doesn’t shy away from.
“Whether you have a season that meets your expectations or not, you have to turn the page, what you did before doesn’t matter. I want to help the team win and be more consistent,” the 26-year-old said this week. “Last year was a short season, so there wasn’t a lot of margin for error, but I want to get better, certainly.”
After scoring 60 points in 81 games in his first full NHL season in 2011-12 (0.76 points a game), the diminutive native of Laurier-Station, Que., notched 28 in 48 games in 2013 (0.58 points a game).
He signed a long-term contract midway through the year – his first serious payday since joining the organization as an undrafted free agent in 2007 – and promptly saw his form dip.
Though Montreal rolled three scoring lines more or less evenly in 2013, the duo of Desharnais and Habs leading scorer Max Pacioretty – they played with a variety of linemates, including Erik Cole, Michael Ryder and Brendan Gallagher – were used almost exclusively in an offensive role.
According to stats compiled by behindthenet.ca, a hockey analytics website, Desharnais started 61.1 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone, trailing only Pacioretty and Gallagher among forwards.
Desharnais’s defensive stats are unremarkable – he’s paid to create goals, not prevent them – but he had the second-highest ice time at even strength among Habs centres, and was essentially tied for the most power-play time.
The Canadiens man-advantage ticked over just fine in the lockout-shortened season, but if Desharnais isn’t able to produce points more consistently, it seems likely he’ll lose minutes to centre Lars Eller and winger Alex Galchenyuk.
In fact, the 24-year-old Eller said the objective is to earn first-line ice time this season.
“We want to be the best every time we go out there … we’re not going to be satisfied with having less ice time than any other, we want to be out there as much as possible,” he said.
The 19-year-old Galchenyuk, a natural centre who went on a scoring tear at the end of his rookie season (13 points in 16 games), said he’s less preoccupied with those distinctions than getting stronger and improving his ability to retain possession.
“In junior, I held on to the puck a lot more than I did last year … that’s one of the things I’ve been working on, protecting the puck better and holding it a little more,” said Galchenyuk, who sported a spiffy pair of red, white and blue sneakers with his nickname – Chuckie – stitched into the tongues.
Though it’s still early in training camp, Habs head coach Michel Therrien has made a point of playing Eller and Galchenyuk with Gallagher, their late-season linemate last season.
He has also kept Desharnais and Pacioretty (who started playing together in the minors) with free-agent signing Daniel Brière, and will continue to do so.
“We want to give them a chance to work,” Therrien said.
The Desharnais unit is an intriguing one, given Pacioretty – whose points per 60 minutes and advanced possession stats put him among the elite left-wingers in the NHL – and Brière are both speedy, established trigger-men.
Brière is also a natural centre, and as a right-handed shot could end up taking more than a few faceoffs – Desharnais took the second-most draws last year, his 50-per-cent success rate was fifth-best on the team.
“[Brière] is a role model of mine … he’s not a big guy, like me, to be able to play on the same line with him now is great,” Desharnais said.
It may be counter-intuitive for a guy listed at 5 foot 7 and 170 pounds to come into camp a little lighter than in past years, but it’s by design: his off-season focus was on improving his quickness and acceleration.
“I’ve been working hard on becoming more explosive,” said Desharnais, who like many of his teammates had a disappointing showing in a first-round playoff exit against the Ottawa Senators.
Depth is the Habs’ hallmark, and when three lines are clicking they become almost impossible to defend (in 2013, they were fourth in the league in goals scored).
But as general manager Marc Bergevin likes to say, there are players who get you to the playoffs and players who get you through the playoffs.
This year, Desharnais is bent on showing he can be both.