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Habs unwrap an early Christmas present in Desharnais

David Desharnais of the Montreal Canadiens. (File Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Elsa/Getty Images

Too small, the pro scouts sniffed, too slow.

But what they didn't account for is that he was too good – and too determined – not to play in the NHL.

And lo, here he is: David Desharnais, double-D, an undrafted master illusionist whose craftiness and pluck have vaulted him from the minors to the Montreal Canadiens' top-producing forward line in less than 12 months.

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At 5 foot 7 he may not have the size of a Ryan Getzlaf. He may not have the goal-scoring touch of a Steven Stamkos or Matt Duchene's speed.

Then again, Desharnais has a surfeit of smarts, desire to burn and the advantage of being an outrageous bargain for a top-two centre (he will make $850,000 U.S. this year and next).

Coupled with the fact that it took him until the age of 24 to get his name on the marquee lights, Desharnais has something like an every-man quality.

After he started making NHL money last year, following 3 1/2 seasons in the minors, he indulged in the purchase of a condo – in the 'burbs.

"I'm not much of a city guy," he said. "Besides, have you seen the real-estate prices in Montreal?"

Desharnais also delivered some important news to his mother, Gaëtane, who has spent much of her working life toiling in kitchens or cleaning offices.

"I said to her that she's worked hard enough, and now it's time to stop," he said in an interview. "You could say I retired my mum."

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There may be more room in the budget for a few luxuries before too long.

Desharnais has become the Habs' go-to guy for instant offence, and he has vastly improved his faceoff ability and defensive game, earning public plaudits from coach Jacques Martin. He showed why in a game against the Flyers on Thursday.

After leaving Philly's Max Talbot for dead with some quick footwork behind the net, Desharnais glided into the slot, waited, waited, and snapped the puck home through a tangle of much larger bodies.

Later, on the power play, he faked a shot and made a no-look, tape-to-tape dish to linemate Max Pacioretty, whose one-timed pass to Erik Cole swiftly found itself in the net.

"Think it's about time he had his chance?" said Habs winger Mathieu Darche. "His line is the most dangerous line every night, and it all goes through him. I said last year in training camp that he was already our best guy below the goal line. I always knew he was good enough, it was a question of getting the opportunity."

And that opportunity, which also required a long-term injury to veteran Habs centre Scott Gomez, was a long time in the making.

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The 25-year-old Desharnais grew up in Laurier-Station, Que., a hamlet 50 kilometres west of Quebec City. He was the youngest of three children. His father, Gilbert, used to make an outdoor rink for the children to play on (Gilbert and Gaëtane split some years ago).

It was there that Desharnais says he learned the game, mostly from his brother Stéphane.

"[Stéphane]never had the greatest skills, but he used to take me out to play with his friends, so I was always playing with older kids. They showed me all sorts of little things, tricks and stuff. He knew I was better than he was," laughed Desharnais, who talks to his brother almost daily and calls him after games.

When Desharnais was in grade school, Stéphane went to Wilcox, Sask., to study and play hockey at Father Athol Murray's fabled College of Notre Dame.

Little brother had thoughts about following in those footsteps, but was picked 20th overall in the 2003 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft by the Chicoutimi Saguenéens and opted for major junior (Sidney Crosby was the first overall pick that year; Pittsburgh defenceman Kris Letang went a few picks after Desharnais).

Despite a stellar junior career, there were no takers in the NHL draft, although he eventually got a tryout at the Habs' rookie camp in 2007.

From there, Desharnais earned a two-way minor-league contract and was assigned to the Cincinnati Cyclones of the East Coast Hockey League.

After a slow start, he ripped up the ECHL to the tune of 106 points in 68 games and won a league championship. His apprenticeship continued in the AHL with the Hamilton Bulldogs under coach Guy Boucher, now of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

When he finally earned a full-time call-up last Christmas – he had played a handful of games in 2009-10 – Desharnais started slowly, but quickly found his rhythm and scored 22 points in 43 games.

"He's so smart out there," said Pacioretty, who also played with Desharnais in the minors and has 11 goals this year. "I think it's hilarious that people don't talk about him as one of the best players they've seen in Montreal for a good while."

Cole, the third member of the so-called Two-and-a-half Men Line, leads the team with 12 goals, including four in four games.

Since the trio were thrown together three weeks ago, they have been Montreal's best (some would say only) and most consistent source of points.

And to those who say Desharnais can only express himself because he's playing with beefy wingers who also happen to be the Habs' best scorers?

"You could argue Max and I have benefited from playing with him just as much," said Cole. "The more you play with him, the more you see just how much he does at a high level."

As the traffic thickens in the playoffs, a player who weighs only 175 pounds may find it harder to create space, but life has taught Desharnais to never expect anything to be easy.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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