Commentary

Desharnais is used to proving himself

Montreal's center battles from sitting as a healthy scratch to running the top line

Updated: May 24, 2014, 8:21 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- From healthy scratch in November to top-line center in the playoffs, the story of David Desharnais' season is about perseverance and mental toughness.

You could say it's the microcosm of his career, too; the pint-sized center went undrafted and had to prove himself every step of the way.

"I remember him telling me when he got scratched the second time, obviously he was mad, but he looked at me and he said: 'This is going to be the last time I'm getting scratched this year,'" Montreal Canadiens teammate Daniel Briere recalled Saturday. "And he was right, he came back after that, took it in a positive manner instead of pouting and feeling sorry for himself, he decided to do something about it. What he did after that when he got another chance, he really took off from there. That's impressive."

Briere knows what that's all about. Like Desharnais, Briere had to prove himself all his life as a smallish center, twice waived in his NHL career.

"I think it comes from being a smaller player and always being down and always being told that you're not going to succeed at the next level," said Briere. "You build a little edge that when things aren't going well, you know maybe a little bit more how to react. He used that to his advantage this year."

Things were so bad in November that Montreal mayor Denis Coderre piled on, tweeting at the time: "Hello? Can we get a one-way ticket to [AHL] Hamilton for David Desharnais please."

That's when agent Pat Brisson remembers calling his client to make sure he was OK given how the season had begun.

"I'll be honest, I don't remember the last time a player went so low and came back up so high, that there was such a difference from the lowest low to the highest high," Brisson told ESPN.com Saturday. "He's had the same attitude all along. He cares. I have to give some credit to his teammates, I know [Max] Pacioretty was there for him, and Danny Briere. And [GM] Marc Bergevin was really good at handling the situation in terms of communicating with him when things were not going well. The last straw was when the mayor of Montreal did that. I felt so bad for him. I remember spending a half hour on the phone with him. I give him so much credit for being so strong mentally. It's probably a product of all the adversity he's faced in his career, being a small player, playing well in junior hockey but not getting recognized for it. His journey is an amazing story."

We asked two assistant general managers from two difference Eastern Conference teams Saturday what they saw in Desharnais. Their praise was unanimous.

[+] EnlargeDavid Desharnais
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesDavid Desharnais is averaging 18:42 of ice time in the postseason, over a minute more than during the regular season.

"His hockey sense, as much offensive as defensive, is really off the charts," said one assistant GM. "He's got the hands to make plays in tight areas. He delivers perfect passes. He makes his linemates better. And he's responsible in his own zone, which allows for playing him on any line."

Said the other assistant GM: "What a story this guy is, he's a real competitor. He's got great hockey sense. It's similar to Tyler Johnson [of Tampa], really. You take a flyer on these guys and all of a sudden you say, 'Wow.' They're always around the puck. They find a way to be impactful. But it's all about hockey sense and will -- that's what Desharnais is all about."

Perhaps most telling is how the faces light up in the Montreal room when you ask his teammates about him.

"If you look at Davey's path to the NHL, it's kind of the same to what he went through this year," linemate Brendan Gallagher said Saturday. "He played and led the team in scoring in the East Coast [ECHL], he had to go to the AHL and do the same thing, he's had to prove himself at every level. Him getting off to a rough start, you wouldn't have had a better teammate and a guy to handle it. He was never pouting around the rink, he was out there on the ice working on extra stuff after practice; you just see that he understood what he went through to get to the NHL and he was confident in himself and what he was capable of doing that when pucks weren't going in for him at the start of the year, he knew exactly how to change that around. It started with his work ethic, just his desire and drive to get where he is."

As Brisson noted, Pacioretty was great support to Desharnais during the rough times. But Pacioretty, who plays on Desharnais' left wing, said it's easy to cheer for a guy like that.

"A lot of times you judge how good a player is by whether people want to play with him or not,'' Pacioretty said Saturday. "Since I've been here, everyone always wants to play with Davey, he makes his linemates better, he makes his teammates better, he's unselfish and that goes a long way in the room as well.

"It was definitely tough earlier this year for him, but you know what? He had such a good attitude through it all, he knew things would turn around eventually and they obviously did. He came to the rink every day with a smile on his face no matter what was being said about him or if he was out of the lineup. When you have a good attitude like that, good things happen. And he's being rewarded now."

Head coach Michel Therrien was hard on Desharnais earlier this season, but you can tell he's appreciative of the 5-foot-7 center battling through the adversity.

"Well, this is a young man that is getting better and better," Therrien said Saturday. "You know, he had a tough start with our team, but he's battling hard. He's competing. He's an important player for us. I have a lot of respect for his work ethic. He's an important part of the success of this hockey team, and a lot of credit goes to him because of the way that kid's competing every game. He's good defensively. He's got poise with pucks. He's getting better and better on faceoffs. He's good defensively. So we really like his game."

In the ECHL just six years ago, undrafted out of junior despite putting up 226 points in his last two years in Chicoutimi, Desharnais never took no for an answer. That kind of determination you don't teach, although Brisson is trying to do just that with the young prospects that his CAA firm brings in.

"I've applied what he's done to our prospects," Brisson said. "We're teaching these kids about adversity, about understanding how to get through it. All the prospects are good players, but the difference will be who's stronger mentally? Who's going to be able to face adversity and find a way through it? That's what makes David so special."

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