If the rumors are true, Marc Bergevin could learn a lot from Jason Botterill right about now.
Learn? From a GM who lasted just three years helming the Buffalo Sabres before getting fired? Hey, I didn’t say learn from what Botterill did right.
Two years ago, the Sabres were looking to make a shakeup following another losing season after which one of their top two centers, two-way maven Ryan O’Reilly, lamented his frustration at the constant losing. O’Reilly was 27 at the time, with plenty of good years left, and his two-way skill set was highly regarded around the league, enough that he’d made Canada’s World Cup roster in 2016. It wasn’t going to be difficult to find takers, and St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong came calling.
The Blues and Sabres struck a blockbuster deal July 1, 2018. St. Louis received O’Reilly, and Buffalo received prospect Tage Thompson, veterans Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick.
At the time, the Sabres felt they were in a good position to cash out on a player who needed a change. They had Jack Eichel as their No. 1 center, and emerging prospect Casey Mittelstadt had arrived in the NHL for a cup of coffee during a spectacular 2017-18 campaign in which he’d also been named MVP of the World Junior Championship. He was the franchise’s long-term plan for the second-line center job.
The problem: projecting out Mittelstadt to be a No. 2 center too soon shoehorned him into a gig for which he wasn’t necessarily ready. He floundered in his first full season. Berglund ended up leaving the team for personal reasons after 23 games, taking away some crucial lineup insulation and forcing Mittelstadt too high up the depth chart too soon. It had been O’Reilly’s job to handle all the toughest defensive matchups among the Sabres’ forward group, and no one was able to successfully inherit that responsibility. Buffalo has endured a black hole at the No. 2 center position since that trade, and it probably led to Botterill’s undoing. Meanwhile, of course, O’Reilly won the Selke Trophy and the Conn Smythe Trophy in his first year as a Blue, helping them to their first Stanley Cup. The trade has a chance to be remembered as one of the most lopsided in NHL history someday, depending on how the draft picks play out.
And that brings us to Montreal Canadiens GM Bergevin and rumors that surfaced Thursday surrounding their important two-way center, Phillip Danault, who is 27. The Professional Hockey Writers Association announced its Selke Trophy winner and revealed the voting breakdown Thursday, and Danault finished sixth. He’d finished seventh the previous year. Per naturalstattrick.com, Among the 334 forwards who played 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Danault and linemates Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar held the top three spots at third, first and second, respectively, in team shot attempts per 60 minutes. With Danault on the ice, the Habs held the following advantages for the year in 5-on-5 play:
Shot attempts: 1,191-815
Shots on goal: 652-447
Scoring chances: 560-381
High-danger attempts: 231-152
…and that was despite the fact Danault’s line was regularly tasked with shutting down the other teams’ best forwards. His most common opponents in terms of minutes played against included the likes of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, Artemi Panarin and Auston Matthews – and Danault still had the best possession numbers in the league.
Danault, then, has very clearly established himself as one of the sport’s elite defensive forwards. Fair or not, Selke voters seem to want a guy on their radars for a few years before handing over the award, as we saw with O’Reilly last year and, after years of flirting with a win, Sean Couturier this season. So Danault could easily work his way up to winning a Selke within a year or two.
And yet…here he is, bandied about by multiple insiders this week as a candidate to get traded. It’s already been established that center Max Domi could get traded, but Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman has suggested Thursday it’s possible Domi stays and Danault goes.
Because dynamic. intelligent two-way center Nick Suzuki emerged as a go-to player as a rookie this season, the Habs were able to separate Danault from his wingers at times during the post-season, trying them with Suzuki and using Danault in a third-line role specifically for shutdown purposes. He flourished, playing a crucial part in neutralizing the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top forwards as the Habs upset them during the play-ins, but Danault, who enters the final season of his contract, does not like the idea of being a third-line center. He didn’t mince words after the season, suggesting he couldn’t grow in a limited role and that his deployment could affect whether the re-signs with the team when his contract expires after next season.
Maybe the Habs feel they have a better, younger version of Danault emerging in Suzuki. They could be right. But the Sabres were confident in what they had with Mittelstadt, too. The sample size is obviously bigger with Suzuki, and his two-way game makes him a higher-floor player, so the comparison isn’t perfect. Still, removing such an elite defensive forward from the equation would put a lot more pressure on the Habs’ young core, which also includes center Jesperi Kotkaniemi, to become high-end stoppers on defense. It’s asking a lot. The return for Danault in a trade would surely be significant, just as it was for O’Reilly, but when the demand for a player is so high, sometimes it’s a hint at how important it is to keep that player.
Domi would still bring a significant return and, as an RFA, he has more years of team control left than Danault does. Domi’s skill set, which skews more toward the offensive side, is also easier to replicate among young players. Danault is harder to replace, and it would be a mistake to move him. With only a year left on his deal, he’s a threat to depart as a UFA next summer, but here’s an idea: re-sign him. Championships are won these days with top-end centers who can play monster minutes at both ends of the ice against top-tier competition.