Phillip Danault should not be turned into the next Marcus Kruger
The Blackhawks want Phillip Danault to be their next Marcus Kruger, but he can be so much more than that.
When Marcus Kruger suffered a wrist injury and had to undergo surgery that would require him to miss 3-4 months, the immediately conclusion of many Blackhawks fans was that Phillip Danault would be called up to fill Kruger's checking line center role.
It's no secret that Danault, the No. 26 overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, has been being groomed as the eventual Kruger replacement for some time now. The call-up was an obvious one made shortly after Kruger's injury was announced. However, Danault's recent strong offensive play while on a line with Teuvo Teravainen and Andrew Desjardins has shown that the 22-year-old forward's skills and potential would be wasted in such a role.
Danault's offensive ability was well known when he was drafted, as he totaled 67 points for the Victoriaville Tigres of the QMJHL in 2010-11. For a player known for his defensive acumen, it was an impressive showing. He would go on to total 71 and 85 points, respectively, in his two subsequent seasons in major junior hockey.
Danault's offensive production didn't transfer as well to the AHL as he might've hoped. The center scored just six goals and totaled just 26 points during his first full season in Rockford in 2013-14. Those numbers rose last season when he scored 13 goals and added 25 assists for 38 total points in 70 games.
In 11 games in Chicago, Danault has tallied four points, all of them assists that have come in his nine games this season. The production hasn't been overwhelming from Danault, but his play has been impressive nonetheless. The statistics show this as well.
While the sample size for Danault is still quite small, his underlying statistics are extremely impressive. His usage is extremely comparable to the way Joel Quenneville uses Kruger, as he has an offensive zone start percentage (ZSO%) of 29.49. Danault also has a 5v5 Relative Offensive Zone Start percentage (ZSO%Rel) of -33.78 percent. Both of those percentages are the third-lowest among all Blackhawks forwards this season, just above Desjardins and Kruger.
In spite of being used in heavily defensive situations, Danault has been able to control possession quite well while on the ice. His 5v5 CF% of 52.48 percent has him third among Blackhawks centers who have played more than 100 minutes this season. It's much better than Kruger's 48.37 CF%.
More than his possession and usage, Danault has also been creating scoring chances at an incredible rate, too. He has been on the ice for 48 scoring chances at 5v5 in his nine games and the Blackhawks have been producing 25.39 scoring chances per 60 minutes when Danault is on the ice. He has 11 individual scoring chances in those nine games, eight that are considered high-danger scoring chances, which are all shots in the green area in the picture below.
While he has yet to find the back of the net, it's becoming increasingly clear that Danault is capable of creating scoring chances both for himself and his linemates. In the five games that they've played on a line together, Desjardins has had 11 individual scoring chances at 5v5, which accounts for 22 percent of 50 his individual scoring chances this season. Teravainen has also seen an increase in individual scoring chances, as he has had seven iSC in his five games with Danault, which is 11 percent of 63 chances this season.
Beyond the stats, though, simply watching Danault play, it is obvious that he has the offensive pedigree you would expect from a first-round draft pick. He is constantly moving his feet, has an active stick and sees the ice very well. His intelligence and hockey IQ are very evident each and every time he is on the ice, in every zone. He passes well, shoots well and is constantly creating scoring chances when he is on the ice.
While Danault's defensive abilities are strong likely strong enough for him to take over Kruger's checking center role whenever Kruger leaves Chicago, Danault's offensive ability at a young age and his potential for growth in that area as he matures are undeniable. It would be put to waste if Danault were to be used exclusively as a checking center.
Danault would be best used centering a scoring third line, similar to the way he is being used now with Teravainen and Desjardins. His combination of offensive abilities and a strong defensive game make him the perfect candidate to fill a third-line center role. Maybe he can center a trio with Teravainen and Marko Dano at some point, unless the latter proves to be the 1LW solution many hope he is.
Many people seem to believe that going forward, it is either Danault or Kruger for the Blackhawks. However, keeping Danault as the scoring third-line center and Kruger as the checking center is not only entirely possible for Chicago, but might even be the most prudent decision. The center corps of Jonathan Toews, Artem Anisimov, Danault and Kruger would undoubtedly put the Blackhawks among the deepest and most efficient teams down the middle.
It makes sense to use Danault as a checking center in Kruger's absence. Danault has shown he can handle the role and is likely the best option the Blackhawks have to help anchor their defense at this time. But when Kruger returns, it should not be the end of Danault in Chicago.
Danault is still very young and his career is in the earliest of stages. Still, we have already seen that he has the potential to be an impact player on both sides of the puck for the Blackhawks in the future. Resigning to using him as a checking center would simply be a mistake on the team's part.
Adam Hess is a staff writer at Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter at @FeathersInDaHat.