MONTREAL – David Desharnais had to prove a lot of people wrong before he hit the jackpot with a four-year, US$14 million contract with the Montreal Canadiens.
Neither big enough nor fast enough to impress the scouts, the five-foot-seven centre was overlooked in the NHL draft and only got a chance because he played for a junior team, the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, that was partly owned by former Canadiens captain and coach Guy Carbonneau.
On Carboneau’s recommendation, the Canadiens gave the stocky Desharnais a tryout in 2007.
And on Friday, the club showed that it now considers the Laurier Station, Que., native a key part of its future as it signed him to a long-term extension that will pay $3.5 million per season through 2016-17.
“You just have to know where you want to go and it doesn’t matter what everyone else says,” Desharnais said. “I’m so happy I don’t know what to say.
“It’s a great day for me to be part of the Montreal Canadiens and be part of the success of the team.”
The 26-year-old Desharnais is among a group of players signed in recent months to long-term deals that includes goalie Carey Price, defenceman Josh Gorges, centre Tomas Plekanec and wingers Max Pacioretty and Brandon Prust.
Defenceman P.K. Subban signed only a two-year deal this season, but his stellar play suggests that he will also be inked to a multi-year, big money deal before long.
None took a longer route to contract security than Desharnais.
Montreal sent him to Cincinnati in the ECHL, where he piled up 106 points in 68 games and helped the Cyclones win a Kelly Cup in 2008.
Then he spent three seasons with Hamilton in the American Hockey League, with call-ups to Montreal of six games in 2009-10 and 43 in 2010-11.
He finally put in a full NHL season in 2011-12.
While the injury-wracked team struggled to a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference, Desharnais flourished at centre on the top line with Pacioretty and Erik Cole. He finished third in team scoring with 16 goals and 60 points in 81 games.
Desharnais and Pacioretty first forged a bond playing together in Hamilton. Even with Cole traded in-season to Dallas and rookie Brendan Gallagher now on right wing, the two continue to work together.
“If anyone in the world deserves a contract like that it’s Davy,” Pacioretty said. “He’s put in the work at every level.
“He’s proven everyone wrong. There’s a lot of ex-hockey players working in the (Canadiens) system now and it takes a hockey player to know how valuable he is to a team. They understood it, obviously.
“It’s a little more special for me, considering how much we’ve played together. We’ve had a lot of talks about how much we want to be signed here and how special it is to play here. And I know him, being a French guy from right down the road, it’s the icing on the cake.”
The team was once known as the Flying Frenchmen, but they currently have only three French-Canadians—Desharnais, Francis Bouillon and recent call-up Gabriel Dumont.
Desharnais didn’t want to talk about how the deal got done, which came within a few weeks of signing with agent Pat Brisson. And he brushed aside suggestions that Montreal may have got him at a bargain price for a 60-point man. He was just happy to be signed for four more years.
But he admitted to being concerned for his future early in the season when he struggled to score, with only three goals and two assists in the first 13 games. The entire line has picked up its scoring of late, however.
He has eight goals and eight assists in 27 games heading into a game Saturday against the Devils in New Jersey.
Coach Michel Therrien is glad to have him.
“This year he’s finally established as an NHL player,” said Therrien. “Don’t forget, last year he was still on the line.
“We didn’t know which way he was going to go. He deserves a lot of credit. We’re excited and pleased to have a guy like that; a good, hard working person.”
Desharnais gets pushed off the puck by bigger opponents at times, but he manages to avoid many hits and he’s a tenacious forechecker. He also has excellent vision on the ice and is a clever passer with the potential to be a big points producer.
The signing gives the Canadiens 18 players under contract next season with about $8 million in salary cap space, which can be increased if, as expected, they buy out the last two years of defenceman Tomas Kaberle’s deal at $4.250 million per season.
The Canadiens (18-5-4) take a four-game winning streak into New Jersey and will have some new faces in the lineup.
Jarred Tinordi, the six-foot-six defenceman who was their first round pick in 2010, will make his NHL debut in place of Greg Pateryn, who was sent back to Hamilton after a three-game stint. Tinordi was paired with Bouillon in practice.
Winger Michael Blunden was called up Friday to replace Michael Ryder, who is out with a lower body injury. Ryder missed part of the second period of a shootout win over Ottawa on Wednesday night, although he took part in practice on Friday.