How Phillip Danault Is Breathing New Life Into the Los Angeles Kings

Los Angeles Kings lynchpin Drew Doughty raised some eyebrows when he called for roster upgrades in May: “There’s no point waiting for these prospects to develop when you’ve got guys in their prime that are hungry to win and sick of losing.” While he believed the team’s core deserved one last championship push, many questioned their ability to perform to his expectations.

After all, 2014 was a long time ago.

Nevertheless, general manager Rob Blake sprung to action by adding veterans Phillip Danault, Alex Edler and Viktor Arvidsson to a nucleus comprising Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Alex Iafallo and the goaltending duo of Cal Petersen and Jonathan Quick.

On October 22, Doughty suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for another six weeks or so. However, that isn’t the biggest headline surrounding the team lately. The 6-5-1 Kings are riding a five-game winning streak that has propelled them back into the playoff conversation. Only a week ago, this resurgence seemed unthinkable. It felt as though this was a lost year and Los Angeles would merely continue to stockpile assets for the future.

Instead, Todd McLellan’s troops are storming up the standings while playing fairly solid hockey. At 5-on-5, the Kings are claiming 49.4% of the expected goals (17th) but 59.0% of the actual goals (6th). They aren’t on some shooting bender either (18th in OISH%). They’ve simply shored up some of their defensive weaknesses to give their netminders a chance to shine (4th in OISV%).

Danault, who signed a six-year, $33 million deal with the Kings in free agency, has played a large role in the team’s return to stingy, no-nonsense territory.

The 28-year-old has posted eight points in 12 contests and delivered the disciplined three-zone hockey he gained a reputation for as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. He’s quite simply one of the finest defensive centers in the world—and he’s justifying that claim with a strong start in a new environment.

As a dependable pivot, most of his game revolves around sound positioning. On and off the puck, he puts himself in the right spots to support his teammates. Watch how much smooth the sailing is for the Kings when Danault is involved:

It’s almost like he was programmed to play the center position. He’s robotic. Precise. Available to lend a hand in any situation. It’s not some happy coincidence that 27-year-old Iafallo is trending toward the best season of his career next to Danault. It’s also not a coincidence that Montreal is floundering at 3-10-0 without him.

When he’s on the ice, L.A. owns 59.0% of the shot attempts, 54.8% of the scoring chances and 56.9% of the high-danger bids. Oh, and let’s not forget his sparkling 59.7% success rate at the faceoff dot. The Kings have finally rediscovered a measure of control at even strength. The club’s structure is shining because its top two centers are driving it home for almost two-thirds of every game.

You can’t spend entire contests on the attack, though. Thankfully, Danault remains a diligent presence in his zone as well. His active stick and stubborn inside leverage allow him to win the lion’s share of puck battles.

He’s willing to lay out for desperation blocks and poke checks too, but most of the time, those aren’t required because he’s tracking the play so intelligently that he can just shuffle over to the action and flip possession for his team. It’s awfully difficult to find quality looks when Danault is on patrol. Take note of when and how he chooses to engage puck-carriers. He doesn’t charge at them but rather waits for them at the point of attack:

There’s a reason he’s dominated high-danger goal shares year over year (72.7 HDGF% this season). He makes you work for every opportunity. Frankly, he should be a Selke Trophy finalist every season.

We all know by now that you need stellar offensive production to catch the attention of voters—even for an award meant to celebrate the defensive exploits of forwards. Fortunately, Danault fits the bill there as well. Over the past three seasons, he ranks 36th among forwards in even-strength points/60 while delivering spotless defense. He’s actually tied with Mr. Selke, Patrice Bergeron, in that department. That should give you an idea of how well Danault has performed at both ends of the ice.

With the puck, he displays great vision and the ability to think on his feet. He doesn’t need to hold on for an eternity before picking out a pass. Without the puck, he works to maintain great positioning, either staying on top of the play for defensive purposes or driving the net for greasy goals:

There’s nothing sexy about these clips. However, it’s the kind of efficient, high-motor hockey that wins games and improves the outlook of a whole team.

On Monday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, his quiet but deadly three-zone skill set was on display:

First, he breaks up Mitch Marner’s pass near the defensive blue line. Then, he dispossesses Alex Kerfoot like he isn’t even there and launches Los Angeles’ transition up the ice. With the puck below Toronto’s goal line, Danault fends off both Morgan Rielly and John Tavares to extend the play. Finally, he beats Rielly to the far post for a crucial 3-1 goal.

That’s Danault in a nutshell: stout defense, industry and quick-strike instincts.

Heading into the 2021-22 campaign, you had to take the long view to feel optimistic about the Kings. Their pipeline of young talent is as rich as any in the league: Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte, Arthur Kaliyev, Gabriel Vilardi, Rasmus Kupari, Akil Thomas, Tobias Bjornfot, Brandt Clarke. That should spell a bright future.

But this year’s club is offering cause for short-term excitement too, and the Kings’ decision to bring in a prime two-way workhorse is a major reason why.

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