BROSSARD, Quebec -- David Desharnais has had to prove his value as a hockey player his entire life.
He's made a believer of the Montreal Canadiens.
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin signed Desharnais to a four-year contract extension worth $14 million Friday, rewarding a player who was never drafted and worked his way through the ECHL and American Hockey League to become an offensive force in Montreal.
Desharnais, 26, is in the final year of a two-year, $1.7 million contract and was slated to be a restricted free agent in July.
"When you sign your first contract you think, all right, I did it," Desharnais said Friday after practice. "But this is a big step. It's a long contract, so on top of the money, I'm a part of the Montreal Canadiens for the next four years with all these guys. We have a nice team, a lot of us grew up together in the minors, and we have a chance to win here like we did down there. It's an incredible feeling."
Bergevin signing Desharnais means the Canadiens have 18 players under contract for the 2013-14 season at a shade under $56 million, leaving approximately $8.3 million in space under next season's salary cap of $64.3 million.
However, that payroll includes the $4.25 million salary of defenseman Tomas Kaberle, who will be a healthy scratch for a 17th time this season when the Canadiens visit the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night. There's a strong possibility Bergevin may buy out the final year of Kaberle's contract if he's unable to trade him, which would significantly boost the cap space the GM has available to him this offseason.
After trading Erik Cole and the two years remaining on his deal at $4.5 million per year to the Dallas Stars for the expiring contract of Michael Ryder a few weeks ago, Bergevin did not wait long to use some of the financial flexibility on Desharnais.
Often overlooked because of his diminutive stature at 5-foot-7, 177 pounds, Desharnais became a legitimate No. 1 center last season with 16 goals and 44 assists in 81 games, ranking 20th in the NHL among centers with 60 points.
"If anyone in the world deserves a deal like that, it's Davey. He's put in the work and at every level he's proven everyone wrong," said Desharnais' left wing for the past three years, Max Pacioretty. "[Management] can tell us how much confidence they have in us, but going out and signing Davey for four years shows how much they trust him and how much they think he's a valuable part of this team. The players all knew it, and this is just a bit of insurance for him that the management thinks so as well."
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien has relied on Desharnais to anchor his top power-play unit with Pacioretty and rookie Brendan Gallagher, a line that is also used in most offensive-zone faceoff situations at even strength.
"He always had to prove himself, and that says something about his perseverance and his character," Therrien said. "We want to build this team with good people, and he's a hell of a good person."
From the time he was a boy growing up in Laurier-Station, Quebec, Desharnais constantly had to prove to coaches that he deserved to play on the elite teams. Every time he jumped up an age group to Atom, Pee-Wee and Bantam, Desharnais would be cut from the elite double-A team and spend a season playing in the lower double-B league, only to dominate at that level and make the elite squad a year later.
"Maybe it was unfair sometimes," Desharnais told NHL.com recently. "But it always worked out for me because I took a step back and dominated at the lower level, then just kept building on it."
Desharnais signed as a free agent with Montreal after four dominant seasons with the Chicoutimi Sagunéens of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with 126 goals and 248 assists in 262 games. Despite that production, Desharnais never played for the Canadian national program and had to take a detour through the ECHL before landing in the AHL with the Hamilton Bulldogs.
"People will knock his size, but look at how many battles he wins down low. It's unbelievable."
-- Habs forward Max Pacioretty on teammate David Desharnais
That's where he began playing with Pacioretty, and the two established instant chemistry that continues to this day. Once they began playing together with the Bulldogs, it was Desharnais who taught his more highly touted teammate a valuable lesson that Pacioretty credits with changing his career.
"I used to be all pass, and he's all pass. We played together in Hamilton and we played with a shooter and we each had tons of assists our first year," Pacioretty remembered recently, laughing. "He was like, ‘Hey, you've got a good shot, I'll start setting you up and you've got to shoot the puck a lot.' So I did. He basically taught me how to score goals by setting me up."
Desharnais is not so sure his impact was as big as Pacioretty makes it out to be.
"I'm pretty sure he was able to score goals on his own," Desharnais said. "But a lot of times when I come to a team and people don't know me so they don't give me the puck. But once they do, they see they get it back. So that creates chemistry."
After the pair exploded offensively together last season, Pacioretty was signed to a six-year, $27 million contract extension in the offseason even though he was already signed for 2012-13, one of the first moves Bergevin made after taking the job in May. But Desharnais was not similarly rewarded, making this a contract year.
So when the pair got off to a slow start this season, Pacioretty began to feel some pressure to convert some of the chances Desharnais was creating for him.
"I felt bad not producing for Davey. He set me up with a ton of opportunities," Pacioretty said recently. "Davey doesn't have a contract for next year. You always play for the team, but that's always in the back of my mind. I want to help him out as much as he's helped me out, and if we do that we'll help the team out."
After starting the season with three goals and two assists in his first 13 games, Desharnais has five goals and six assists in his past 14. That early-season slump was perfect fodder for the people who always point to his size to say Desharnais is not a legitimate top center, and that is just the type of motivation Desharnais needs to succeed.
"I got 60 points last season, but I could have had 170 and people still would be doubting me," he said recently. "When things aren't going so well I remember things like that, and it reminds me that I have to get back to the good habits that got me here to begin with."
Those doubters likely will never go away, and Pacioretty is glad that's the case.
"It's so funny when people doubt him," Pacioretty said. "I always say to bite your tongue, because it's coming. He is so good. Only true hockey people can realize how good Davey is. I've never seen someone who sees the ice the way he does and finds his teammates. People will knock his size, but look at how many battles he wins down low. It's unbelievable.
"I want people to keep doubting him because that's what keeps him going."