The Kings established themselves as a team ready to shift from stage 1 of their rebuild to stage two when they traded two draft picks for right winger Viktor Arvidsson. Signing Phillip Danault, arguably the No. 1 center on the 2021 UFA market, erases any lingering doubt that the Kings are ready to punch the gas and try to make the playoffs in the Pacific Division as soon as this season.
On Wednesday they officially signed Danault, 28, to a six-year contract carrying a $5.5-million AAV. Danault turned down a six-year offer at a $5-million AAV to stay with the Montreal Canadiens early last season. When his scoring dried up significantly in 2020-21, it appeared he might regret passing on that offer, but he recovered his value massively during Montreal’s run to the 2021 Stanley Cup final. He did so using the trait that makes him so special: positively elite shutdown ability. From Auston Matthews to Mark Stone, Danault erased opponents’ best forwards throughout the post-season. Despite the fact he faces such talented competition every night, he’s still one of the best play-driving centers of the past several seasons. From 2018-19 through 2020-21, the highest shot attempt shares in the NHL among qualified leaders belonged to Danault’s entire line – him, left winger Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher – with the immortal Patrice Bergeron sandwiched into that top four as well. That was despite the fact Danault’s most common opposing forwards faced at 5-on-5 over that span were Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Brady Tkachuk and Mark Scheifele, each of whom the Danault line caved in.
So it’s understandable that L.A. was attracted to what Danault can do. He’ll become Connor McDavid’s nemesis as his long-term Pacific Division neighbour now after auditioning for that role in the temporary North Division this past season. Behind top center Anze Kopitar, the Kings looked relatively inexperienced albeit extremely exciting up the middle, with Gabe Vilardi graduating to full-time NHL duty, mega-prospect Quinton Byfield expected to spend all of 2021-22 in the NHL and Alex Turcotte and/or Rasmus Kupari likely pushing for a roster spot in camp. Adding Danault to that core makes L.A. six deep with first-round picks on their depth chart at center and takes significant pressure off the kids. With Danault and Kopitar, two of the best shutdown centers of this generation, handling all the toughest assignments, Byfield and Vilardi could do major damage in much more insulated minutes this coming season. The Kings also now have the possibility of breaking in a player like Turcotte on the wing rather than up the middle.
Their financial commitment suggests they’ll give Danault a major role no matter what line he’s on – something about which he expressed concern before his final season as a Hab. Danault’s ripple effect on the lineup should be significant. It will be interesting to see if Kopitar also gets to spread his wings and score more, presumably on a line with Arvidsson. Kopitar has spent virtually his whole career in a hybrid role of scorer and shutdown shadower, earning two Selke Trophies, but Danault is better suited to the defense-first role at this stage of his career, meaning Kopitar should face an easier workload than normal.
That possibility highlights the ironic element of signing Danault. His calling card is defense but, because he can shoulder so much shutdown responsibility, his presence could actually boost the Kings’ offense. That would be welcome news for a team that finished 30th, 30th and 27th in scoring across the past few seasons.
As is the case with any six-year contract taking a player into his mid-30s, Danault’s deal isn’t a lock to look good during its back half. But the Kings, who also inked veteran left-shot defenseman Alexander Edler Wednesday on a one-year, $3.5-million contract, are finished playing it safe. They bided their time over the past couple summers, built up their young prospect pool and are ready to crusade up the Pacific standings.