What Should Montreal Canadiens Do About Struggling Center David Desharnais?

Ryan SzporerContributor IIINovember 20, 2013

Montreal Canadiens forward David Desharnais in alone against New York Rangers goalie Cam Talbot (but can't score).
Montreal Canadiens forward David Desharnais in alone against New York Rangers goalie Cam Talbot (but can't score).Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

The sad truth surrounding struggling Montreal Canadiens center David Desharnais’ 2013-14 season is the stat line of the game in which he made most of an impact read zeros nearly all the way across.

That game, during which he scored the shootout-winning goal, was November 15 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. And had he not been thrown a bone to appear in the shootout by head coach Michel Therrien in the first place, it likely would have been written off as yet another pitiful performance in a season defined by them.

He had zero goals, zero assists, zero penalties and an even plus-minus. A single shot on goal—his first in six games—was his saving grace, but that’s kind of like getting a ticket for rear-ending someone and pointing out to the police officer that your seatbelt was on.

No matter how small the car crash or disaster (5’7”, 170 lbs in this case), you don’t get points for trying to avert it. Boy, does Desharnais know that for a fact, as he’s clearly been playing his butt off. He just hasn’t been getting the results. It’s unfortunate, but in professional sports, results matter.

Speaking of which, the Habs now face a dilemma as a result, namely how to make use of a diminutive winger making $3.5 million per season, whom, right now, is making fans forget a whole lot about Scott Gomez.

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That isn’t to say Desharnais will go a full calendar year without scoring; the chances of that are slim (but not “to none” as Gomez once proved). It’s only meant to convey the gravity of the Habs’ predicament: They’re a cap-space-strapped team paying a player to chip in offensively in the NHL, when, as much he might fit in physically, it seems as though he’d have a hard time scoring in midget AAA.

The Habs’ options are obviously limited. If they could have traded Desharnais, they probably would have by now. It would seem there’s just no market for a player who’s too small to play in a team’s bottom six, too ineffective to play in the top six and too expensive to be a healthy scratch.

Even teams with a lot of cap space that could once be counted on to take on a stupid contract now seem more focused on cutting costs by whatever means necessary, no matter how bad the trade may be. That unfortunately excludes any deal including Desharnais for, say, a bag of pucks—with it being be a coin toss regarding just for whom that trade would be bad.

Theoretically, the Habs can send Desharnais down to the minors and swallow all but $900,000 ($2.6 million) of his salary towards the salary cap, as per the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which seeks to keep players from being buried in the minors.

In such a scenario, the Habs would “gain” nearly $1 million in cap space and clear a space for someone perhaps more deserving in the minors (which would include players on the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers at this point). However, one would think that if that was in the cards, Travis Moen, with a cap hit of $1.85 million, would have been sent down ages ago.

As such, it’s a pretty safe assumption that Desharnais is in Montreal to stay, with three things having been made clear up to this point:

1) The Habs can’t trade him because of his salary

2) The Habs aren’t willing to demote him because of his salary and

3) It in turn makes little sense to keep scratching a player you’re not willing to demote

As such, the only solution here is to get him going, even if only to raise his trade value. That means building the most ideal situation for him in which to thrive.

It’s a less-than-ideal situation for the team as a whole to be clear.

Teams build around franchise players all the time. They don’t tend to make allowances for 27-year-old forwards who have been in the league for parts of just four seasons and have had just one good one. And that’s in where the secret lies.

Montreal Canadiens forward David Desharnais with former linemate Erik Cole.
Montreal Canadiens forward David Desharnais with former linemate Erik Cole.Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

Looking back at his career, he had the greatest success centering Max Pacioretty (6’2”, 217 lbs) and Erik Cole (6'2", 210) two seasons ago, when he scored 60 points. Now, short of an unlikely deal to the Dallas Stars that would reunite him with Erik Cole (Joe Nieuwendyk is no longer general manager there), that means giving him two big bodies to play with to give him the most space.

Pacioretty is the obvious choice at left-wing, while Brandon Prust (6’0”, 194 lbs) or Rene Bourque (6’2”, 217 lbs) can slip in on the other side.

You either go with the actual big body in Bourque, who has the skills to be a top-six winger but can disappear for games at a time. Or you go with the grinder in Prust, who’s got average size but plays bigger than he is and can be placed on any line in a pinch to inject some much-needed effort, enthusiasm and energy, much like Brendan Gallagher did against the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday, helping Desharnais to get two assists (and Pacioretty a hat trick).

Alternatively, leave Pacioretty out of it, put him on a line with Daniel Briere and Brendan Gallagher and demote Desharnais to the fourth line with Bourque and Prust playing opposite wings (both can).

Now, that would conceivably leave an open slot on the Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk line. Prust would otherwise fit in perfectly there, meaning perhaps throwing all caution to the wind and putting Desharnais with Bourque and Moen.

That admittedly seems a lot like throwing in the towel instead, putting Desharnais—a guy who tries without getting results—on a line with Bourque—a guy who can get results if only he tried consistently—and Moen—a guy who’s arguably too worn down to even try.

However, how does one know what will work at this point? Either option is worth a try (with the former more likely to succeed), even if only because the Habs have tried everything else. There is no “worst” that can happen, because three assists in 20 games is rock bottom for the one-time top-line center. Things can only go up from here.