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Dreadful scoring slump has critics taking aim at Habs’ Desharnais

Montreal Canadiens centre David Desharnais, right, has registered just one assist, and no goals, in 17 games this season.

Brian Blanco/AP

Whenever the weakest or slowest-moving antelope separates from the herd, the hyenas swarm in for a feed.

What's true of the savannah can be applied to the Montreal Canadiens.

The role of lumbering zebra has previously been played by Scott Gomez and Carey Price – with cameos by the likes of Chris Higgins and Guillaume Latendresse – and the trailing pack of hungry scavengers, well, everyone knows who they are.

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Into this unfortunate jumble of metaphors stumbles David Desharnais, a walking, talking tale of triumph over insurmountable odds that for no discernible reason has suddenly gone awry.

It's reached the point where Denis Coderre, Montreal's mayor-designate and diehard Habs fan, was urging via Twitter that Desharnais be handed a one-way ticket to the AHL.

This has not gone over well with Desharnais's teammates.

"That's embarrassing … just so uncalled for. It's only going to make matters worse," said winger Max Pacioretty, who found his feet as a pro hockey player in the minors with Desharnais as his centre.

Defenceman Josh Gorges also expressed his annoyance, saying: "It's obviously very disappointing for someone in his position … to come out publicly and embarrass one of our players."

In Monday appearance on RDS, the incoming mayor said he's not trying to target Desharnais, and his tweet was sent in "a moment of emotion."

"I'm a fan, and you can't stop me from being a fan, if I'm not happy, I say so," Coderre said, adding "it's not a major crisis," and his office is no barrier to weighing in on an NHL team he's been cheering on for "at least 45 years."

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Call it the first scandal of the Coderre era – though he has yet to be sworn in – even if it was somewhat predictable given his vigorous social media habits and trenchant style. But Coderre, a man of the people, reflects a sizable portion of the fan base.

Desharnais is mired in an 11-game point drought, hasn't registered a shot in five, and has only one assist – earned in Winnipeg on Oct. 15 – in 17 games overall.

Head coach Michel Therrien continues to profess his and the team's faith in the native of Laurier-Station, Que., but with Daniel Brière hoping to return from a three-week concussion layoff against Tampa Bay on Tuesday – Brière practised at centre Monday – it's not looking good for the undrafted free agent.

"I've made my decision, but I won't announce it until [Tuesday]," Therrien said – which supposes if Brière is good to go, Desharnais will either be shunted to the fourth line or the press box.

He's been through slumps before (seven points in his last 17 games last year, a couple of five-game strings in 2011-12) but this is the deepest funk since 2011, the year he became a full-time NHL player.

The Desharnais case illustrates the perils of raised expectations, and the reality of being a defensively suspect 60-point player in the NHL.

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Everyone, including the diminutive playmaker, expects him to return that level of production and surpass it, the longer it takes to reach, the harder it gets.

Witness the way Desharnais flubbed a dead-simple scoring chance on a gorgeous set-up from Michael Bournival last Sunday against the New York Islanders – he appeared to not anticipate the pass – as evidence he is profoundly out of sorts.

As a small, pass-first player who seldom kills penalties, it's hard for Desharnais to resort to the usual slump-busting tactics – crashing the net, banging with people, aggressive defence – which further complicates matters.

When you consider the kind of player $3.5-million (U.S.) gets you, Desharnais's power outage looks all the grislier: Toronto's David Bolland and St. Louis' Alex Steen are the closest comparables in terms of age and salary; Ottawa's Kyle Turris is younger but occupies the same role.

Desharnais notched 60 points in 81 games in 2011-12 (on a catastrophically poor team), and was the de facto first line centre with Pacioretty and Erik Cole on his wings at the beginning of last season.

Ten months later, Cole is in Dallas, Desharnais is in the dog house, and Pacioretty, the team's leading scorer two years running, has played a shutdown defensive role since returning from a hamstring injury that broke up his duo with Desharnais.

Events move swiftly at this level.

Worse for Desharnais, he's now become the team's sin-eater; it's not a comfortable position even for a homegrown player, as retired defenceman Patrice Brisebois can attest.

In the early 2000s, Brisebois's game went wobbly, he got booed mercilessly, then traded.

A decade later Gomez, who famously went a calendar year without scoring a goal, had a couple of lengthy dry spells (two points in 15 games in 2011-12) but never had more than eight straight games without a point as a Hab.

A lightning rod for discontent, he was bought out last winter.

Higgins, who put together three consecutive 20-goal seasons and was then considered a top-line winger, had a stretch of two points in 16 games in 2008-09, and another of one point in 10; in the summer, he was among the players traded to the New York Rangers for Gomez.

Latendresse, a fan favourite, had just three points to show for 23 games in 2009-10, and was shipped to Minnesota in exchange for Benoit Pouliot, another player prone to long slumps who has since been cut loose.

Careers sometimes fizzle, and not just in Montreal.

That said, long scoring droughts haven't obviously hampered Pacioretty (who in 2009-10 went through a period where he scored three points in 24 games and was sent down).

The key difference is Pacioretty was a 20-year-old prospect, and Desharnais is a 27-year-old in year 1 of a four-year, $14-million contract, a pact that likely makes him untradable.

Last week, Desharnais was a healthy scratch for the first time in his NHL career.

Unless he can figure out a way to bust the slump, it won't be the last.

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