Phillip Danault could have played it safe.
He had established himself as a premier defensive center, stopping opponents’ top scorers well enough to finish in the top seven in voting for the NHL’s best defensive forward for three straight seasons and play a key role in the Montreal Canadiens’ surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final last season. He was dominant in the defensive zone, good at blocking passes. He wasn’t flashy or a big scorer, but he was valuable in a narrowly defined role.
He didn’t accept those limitations.
When the Kings searched for trustworthy, mid-age free-agent forwards last summer, they targeted Danault — but not for a strictly defensive role. He adamantly believed he had scoring potential. So did they, signing him to a six-year, $33-million contract. “They were seeing me the way I see me,” he said.
Danault has justified the Kings’ faith, producing a career-high 21 goals and 42 points in 70 games without sacrificing his diligence on defense. But that’s only part of the reason he has had a significantly positive ripple effect on a team that’s battling to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017-18.
Danault, who has consistently centered Trevor Moore and Viktor Arvidsson on a notably effective two-way line, has eased the burden on No. 1 center Anze Kopitar and allowed young centers Gabe Vilardi, Rasmus Kupari and Quinton Byfield to be slotted into favorable matchups. They don’t have to play up, above their current abilities, and can progress without pressure.
Danault has been a leader by example, winning faceoffs and unerringly planting himself in and around the slot for passes or rebounds. He’s also a leader by word, once assuring an inquisitive Vilardi that yes, even after his trip to the Cup Final he gets nervous before big games, and it’s fine to feel that way.
“That’s why I love the game. To play in situations when you have little butterflies and you can feel good about yourself, be proud of yourself, and have a chance to be the difference every single night,” Danault said. “For me, that’s awesome.”
None of this would have happened if the 29-year-old native of Canada’s French speaking province of Quebec hadn’t moved to the opposite corner of the continent to become the complete player he was sure he could be. Without him, the Kings wouldn’t be solidly in the playoff mix: They’re third in the Pacific Division, a point behind Edmonton, as they prepare to face the Oilers on Thursday at Crypto.com Arena.
“For the first time I was betting on myself, and I think it was the right decision,” Danault said Wednesday. “I felt inside of me that I had something better and something more in my game to raise it to another level, and I think I’m doing it right now. Also, I needed an organization that was trusting me to be doing this, and I think the L.A. Kings was the perfect place for me.
“They showed me a lot of love on the market and they definitely showed me the exact thing that I wanted to see. And the way I felt at that time, that’s exactly how I need to feel. They gave me a real good chance to have the opportunity to achieve what I wanted to do.”
Kings coach Todd McLellan considered Danault’s bet on himself a safe wager. “He’s not gambling at all. He knew it was there,” McLellan said. “The gamble was probably more on our behalf: Could he ultimately deliver the way he is? And we believed he could. That’s why we took the chance.
“There’s not an arrogance in him, there’s not a cockiness, but there’s a really strong belief in his game and what he can bring. He knew who he was and how he could deliver. He wanted the opportunity, and he’s got it here. And he’s made good on it so far.”
Danault’s goals have come almost exclusively from the slot and the blue paint. He’s not big, at 6 feet 1 and 200 pounds, but he stands his ground. “He has very good body awareness, how to position his body, when to arrive. Great anticipation skills around the blue paint,” McLellan said.
“Let’s face it: Every player in the league is told to go there and score dirty or greasy goals, in the cliché that we all use. But going there without a purpose, going there without a plan, is often a waste of time and energy. Phil has purpose, he has a plan, he knows how to get there and when to arrive, and it’s allowed him to be successful in that area. It suits his skill set.”
Danault had hoped to finish his career in Montreal, which reportedly offered him a six-year, $30-million offer in 2020, “but I think we were ready for something else, as well, especially when we saw they weren’t too interested in re-signing us. So we were ready to move on,” said Danault, whose wife Marie-Pierre gave birth to daughter Adelia-Rose three weeks ago, joining 3-year-old son Phillip-Edouard.
Danault couldn’t do anything in Montreal without facing intense media scrutiny. Around the South Bay, he has been recognized a couple of times. “By my neighbors,” he said, laughing. “It’s nice to be not nobody, but almost.”
Edmonton has won five straight games and seven of its last 10 and will pose a tough test for the Kings. That’s nothing new. “Every single game right now is huge. Every game has been huge the last 20 games,” Danault said. They’re expected to get forward Brendan Lemieux and defenseman Matt Roy back from injuries Thursday, but defenseman Alex Edler is hurt again.
“You can do anything when you have a healthy team,” Danault said. “If we have some bounces and we’re playing the system and confident, I think we can make some damage for sure. But everything needs to be in place and some of our young guys need to keep playing the way they are. So do the veterans.”
That includes Danault, who’s winning the bet he made on himself.