A few years ago, not one NHL team saw enough in David Desharnais
to waste a draft pick on him.
Last season, Hamilton Bulldogs coach Don Lever threw him out on the ice for a few games, but admitted wasn't overwhelmed by what he saw.
There's at least one group of people who would never undervalue him, though -- his roommates. Bulldogs Mathieu Aubin
, Mathieu Carle
and Cedrick Desjardins
all welcomed him into their house.
Maybe that has something to do with Desharnais' enjoyment of cleaning and love of cooking.
"It's going to be fun. We're going to check out his cooking skills," Aubin said. "He watches cooking stuff on TV to get some tricks. I'm anxious to see what he cooks us."
And these days, Lever and all the Bulldogs can't get enough of Desharnais, 22. Same with Montreal, which signed him to an NHL deal earlier this month. Maybe that has something to do with his simmering status as one of the most exciting young players in the AHL.
"I'm never surprised at what I do. I just have to have the chance to do it," said Desharnais, a center. "It all comes down to confidence. When you are confident, everything is good. I'm just having fun out there, trying to do my best."
On the score sheet, that translated to four goals and six assists through 14 games for a surprisingly strong Bulldogs squad. That's the kind of AHL entrance that would put a playful grin on anyone's mug.
The ice always has been Desharnais' playground. In 262 regular season games with Chicoutimi of the QMJHL from 2003-2007, Desharnais scored 126 goals and 248 assists. He also collected 43 points in 48 career playoff games there.
Last season, as a pro rookie, he nudged Cincinnati of the ECHL to the Kelly Cup championship with 106 points in 68 regular season games and then 33 more in the playoffs. He was the league's MVP and rookie of the year.
"The passes that he makes are unbelievable," said Aubin, his linemate in Cincy. "I got so many open-net goals because of him."
Desharnais' talent was so great that it almost -- but not quite -- obscured the other obvious thing about him. He stands just 5-foot-6, which is short enough to pass under the low bar of interest the pros had in him.
"Last year I had a great season. It was all down to my size, what I can do this season. There's going to be bigger guys, stronger guys (in the AHL)," Desharnais said of the constant doubts. "Don't just look at my height. It's always a battle. I'm all right with that."
Sometimes it takes awhile to win over the right people. Desharnais played four games with the Bulldogs at the start of last season, and although Lever admits that was a small sample size, he said Desharnais always looked a step behind.
"For me, it's nerves," Desharnais said. "You are just going to have your chance for one or two games. You are playing with people you don't know. I knew Don was unhappy with my play. I wanted to come back and show him I can play."
Desharnais jumped into his summer training knowing he'd have a lot of proving on his plate. With Kyle Chipchura
, Yanick Lehoux
and Ben Maxwell
, the Bulldogs are crammed with talent in the middle. Desharnais has managed to scrounge up his points as a third- or fourth-line center, though he's made a real impact as a penalty killer.
"It's night and day," Lever said of last year to this season. "He's got good on-ice vision. He's small, but he's built solid. As long as he keeps his feet moving, he'll be able to handle things. He's got an inner drive. He doesn't have that little man syndrome. (He thinks) this is what I am, this is what you are going to get, the best I have."
That effort comes in small chunks now in terms of ice time, at least compared to what Desharnais is used to. He's OK with that, as long as he's given a chance to keep scrapping for more minutes and against larger defenders.
"I know Maxwell and Lehoux and Chipchura are awesome centers. I'll have my chance sooner or later," he said. "I'm used to playing a lot more, but I know when you get to this level, you're not going to get 20-25 minutes a game. I can battle. Yes, you have to be intelligent, too. You don't have to go there and run over everybody."
"I'm never surprised at what I do. I just have to have the chance to do it. It all comes down to confidence. When you are confident, everything is good. I'm just having fun out there, trying to do my best." -- David Desharnais
Desharnais has skated up to and around enough frustrated opponents to swing Montreal over to his list of converts. Desharnais started the season on an ECHL/AHL pact, but the Canadiens quickly upgraded that when they saw the bundle of energy that he had become on the ice.
"I guess they were waiting to see how I was going to do in the AHL. With a strong start, they were pretty confident with what I can do in the AHL," he said. "Now I'm going to fight to be in the NHL. It's not going to be easy. Maybe it won't happen at all. I never thought I was going to be in (that league). If not, I'm going to do something else, that's all."
Like, say, a culinary career? Maybe, maybe not. But for now, at least, Desharnais' prowess in the kitchen gives him a hedge against his roomies ribbing him because he can't reach the bowls on the top shelf.
"If they don't want to go to the restaurant," Desharnais warned, "they better be good to me."