The first time I met David Desharnais, he was in long underwear, carrying a blowtorch. He was at training camp, just about to start his first full season with the Hamilton Bulldogs. I recognized him because I'd caught a couple of games of the previous spring's Kelly Cup final, and he was dominant in leading the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones to the championship.
I was standing in the corridor leading to the dressing room when the little guy in the long johns and blowtorch grabbed a couple of sticks and went to work at a nearby table. He glanced up, saw me watching, and, with a big grin, offered me the blowtorch. "Want a turn?" he asked. We laughed, and I congratulated him on his great playoff in Cincinnati. He said that was all very nice, of course, but he wouldn't be satisfied until he was in the NHL, helping the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup. I wished him luck and, although the odds were against him making it, I really started rooting for him.
Last October, I talked with him again. This time, he'd just been cut from the Habs training camp and he wasn't very happy about it. Entering the last year of his contract, he looked up at the Canadiens and saw Tomas Plekanec on a new long-term deal, and the immovable Scott Gomez right behind him on the depth chart. Desharnais knew his chances for a real shot in Montreal were becoming fewer. He wasn't about to give up in any case, and he said, once again, that his dream was to win a spot in Montreal and help the Canadiens win a Cup. This year, though, his determination was tinged with an edge of grimness.
Flash forward to 2011, and, against all expectations save his own, he's a full-time member of the Canadiens. Given a real shot, he's putting up the points and out-playing Scott Gomez. Desharnais admitted a few weeks ago that he's got a system for cracking a lineup despite his size. He just tries to play well defensively and put up some points on the PP. That gets him some trust from the coach, and when he's got that, he starts taking the chances he needs to really play his game. In Montreal, that process has been accelerated because a coach can't wait for a guy to develop when his team needs every point it can get. Desharnais has responded to the challenge and he's earning himself a new contract for next year.
Critics say he's too small to play against tough teams, but he scored goals in nasty games against both the Flyers and the Bruins. They say he's only scoring because he's not facing the same level of checking as Plekanec and Gomez. Yet, he's winning faceoffs against the same guys those guys face, and he's seen his share of Pronger and Chara.
His assist on Benoit Pouliot's goal last night was beautiful to behold. Fighting off his check behind the net, Desharnais saw Pouliot in the slot and slid a perfect pass out front, right on his tape. Pouliot did the rest.
Those two are actually a pretty good pair. Desharnais goes to the net and his hands help him find Pouliot in good position. Pouliot's size and shot can work for him in finishing some of those nice set-ups. With those guys putting up points, it's giving the Habs the potential for three scoring lines. The first line, with Max Pacioretty in Mike Cammalleri's place, is beautiful as well. Pacioretty's a different player since being recalled in December. He credits the coaching and ice time in Hamilton for helping him find his way as a pro. He also gives props to Desharnais, whom he called "the best centre I ever played with." Those guys were 1-2 in AHL scoring for the first part of the season and they're finding a way to bring some of that to the Canadiens.
The evidence of their effective play at the NHL level is perhaps the most persuasive argument for Lars Eller to be sent down. Eller is bursting with potential, and you can see the raw material that made him a first-round draft pick. Like Pacioretty, however, he looks a bit lost with his minimal ice time and revolving linemates in Montreal. He's also playing out of position, which is a tough adjustment to make at the highest level of hockey. When Cammalleri comes back, Eller might benefit from a stint in Hamilton to learn some of the lessons Pacioretty learned earlier this season. With him playing consistent hockey, the Canadiens' young core would be even stronger.
Ryan White's another one who deserves to have an NHL spot. He's probably not going to be the offensive guy Pouliot, Eller and Desharnais can, but teams don't win without guys like White either.
When you look at the potential among the team's youth, you have to think the Canadiens have a great chance to keep improving. Pacioretty seems to have found his game. Eller's got the tools to do the same. Pouliot's still very young. P.K.Subban is learning all the time, and Yannick Weber is playing some sound hockey as well. Carey Price, we forget sometimes, is just 23. This is a young group that can someday make some real noise in the NHL.
And you know what? The guy with the blowtorch is fitting in just fine. David Desharnais has come a long way toward achieving his life's dream. The next test for him will be the NHL playoffs. After last night's big shutout of the wretched leafs, the Canadiens are in pretty good shape in terms of post-season position. If Desharnais can continue to perform like he did in earning the game's first star, the Canadiens can only benefit.