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Montreal Canadiens' David Desharnais (51) celebrates his game-winning goal on Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller during the shootout of an NHL game in Buffalo, N.Y., Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. (David Duprey/AP)
Montreal Canadiens' David Desharnais (51) celebrates his game-winning goal on Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller during the shootout of an NHL game in Buffalo, N.Y., Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. (David Duprey/AP)

In contract year, Habs’ diminutive Desharnais raring to go Add to ...

Those who understand salary cap math quickly assumed the Montreal Canadiens decision to buy out high-priced flop Scott Gomez was meant to clear future cap space for unsigned defenceman P.K. Subban and pedigreed youngster Alex Galchenyuk.

Maybe so.

But there’s another player on the Habs’ roster who could well be due a sizable payday next summer.

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David Desharnais doesn’t mind that no one’s talking about his contract situation – he will be an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent next summer – the Laurier-Station, Que., native is used to being overlooked.

After all, this was a guy who was too small to play in the NHL (he’s 5 foot 7), who wasn’t deemed enough of a prospect to burn a late draft pick on.

And yet, here he is, a 60-point performer who happens to also be an outrageous bargain at $950,000 (all currency U.S.) this year – he’s the lowest salaried first line centre in the league (aside from the unsigned Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars).

“Hey, I’m making more than I did last year, that’s good enough for me,” he smiled after a training camp session at the team’s practice facility.

The 26-year-old Desharnais has come a long way since he was invited to the Habs’ rookie camp as a free agent in 2008 – after a four-year junior career with the Chicoutimi Saguenéens, a team co-owned by former Habs coach Guy Carbonneau.

There followed a stint in the East Coast Hockey League, another in the American Hockey League, and finally a starring role on the glamour circuit last season.

Max Pacioretty, the Habs’ leading scorer, is fond of calling Desharnais “the best centre I’ve ever played with” and last year the two, who played together in the minors, formed a lethal combination with right winger Erik Cole (who scored 35 goals to Pacioretty’s career-high 33).

The trio has been the one constant through the early stages of training camp, even if Pacioretty said none of its members are taking anything for granted.

“It’s a clean slate for everyone, whether it’s our line or any individual, you’ve got to prove yourself all over again with the new management and new coaches,” he said.

True, it’s a meritocracy, but given the understanding the they’ve developed – the undersized playmaker meshed brilliantly last year with his power wingers – it will presumably require a major dry spell for the line to be broken up.

If anything, the expectation is that Desharnais, who has played in only 130 NHL games, and Pacioretty, who only topped 200 last year, will get better.

In which case, Desharnais can expect to become a lot wealthier next summer.

The two-year, $1.7-million deal Desharnais signed after the 2010-11 season was his first one-way contract – where his NHL salary would be guaranteed even if he were to be sent back to the minors.

It was also the first time he was paid more than the league minimum.

Though an improvement on last season could theoretically vault Desharnais into a snootier tax bracket – front-line centres typically make $5-million and up, Gomez’s cap hit is $7.35-million this season (speaking of the Alaskan, it appears the NHL Players’ Association has contacted the league about the decision to send him home and is reviewing its options).

Desharnais said the potential payday is simply not something he’s focused on.

“It seems like my whole career it’s been all about re-signing after each year, it was nice to have two last time. Yes, I’ll have to re-sign, but the focus is really on the season, putting together a better team, getting to the playoffs and forgetting last year,” he said. “I’m really not thinking about my contract at this point.”

When you’ve become accustomed to scratching and clawing for every opportunity, looking too far head is not something that comes naturally.

Desharnais spent a good portion of the fall and early winter playing in the Swiss league, and he comes to camp stockier and stronger than ever.

Though it’s hard to divine much from drills and practices, he looks ready to take the bit between the teeth.

“The start is going to be so important, we have to come of the gate like lions, we’re not going to have any time to make up ground if we stumble,” he said. “I hope that’s what will happen.”

If it does, the Gomez cap space could disappear in a hurry next summer.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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