At the time he was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, a strong defensive game and good skating ability were listed as the main attributes of Jacob de la Rose. There was some hope that that speed could eventually lend itself to a better offensive game with a focused development.
Other than a good season in the AHL with the St. John’s IceCaps in 2016-17, that offensive breakout has never materialized. He simply doesn’t possess the skills a player needs to be a consistent offensive option at the NHL level.
Called up to the Canadiens at just 19 years of age and placed directly into a defensive role, his game without the puck didn’t inspire much confidence either, as he struggled to have any sort of positive impact. Outside of a two-goal performance a month into his first NHL recall, it was clear to most observers that he wasn’t yet ready to play in the top league.
There were times in this fourth season of limited NHL experience when it looked like he was never going to be able to claim an NHL role. But the effective outings have been piling up for him since the trade deadline, when Tomas Plekanec’s departure meant every centre on the team needed to take on more of the defensive duties.
Dealing with several injuries to a defensive corps that wasn’t exactly among the league’s elite when it was healthy, players have had plenty of practice playing in their own end, and it seems Claude Julien has been able to make the most of that situation. Marked improvements have been made in the defensive games of several young players, most notably in Alex Galchenyuk, with promising progress for Jonathan Drouin, and in de la Rose as well as he’s been given a more regular role since mid-February.
Last night, the challenge for the 22-year-old Swede was a head-to-head matchup with Sidney Crosby’s line on home ice, getting the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone. While he and linemates Galchenyuk and Artturi Lehkonen were outshot on the night, they were doing a job of keeping the Pittsburgh Penguins to the outside, forcing shots from the perimeter that amassed on the shot counter but seldom proved to be challenges for Antti Niemi.
Crosby was closely shadowed by the agile de la Rose, who got the best of the matchup by being on the ice for the Habs’ first goal of the game and none against.
Using his speed to attach himself to the top players on the opposing team would be a good use of his skill set. As he explained in his post-game comments, that could open up the more offensive players on the team to be able to get their minutes away from the top personnel of the opposition.
In a season where the playoffs are out of the question and results don’t matter, working on the defensive game of the young players is a good use of the remaining games. It’s a better situation to improve in than training camp or the 2018 pre-season, as they’re playing opponents in games where wins mean something for the teams they’re facing.
While a non-playoff team could simply go through the motions over the remainder of the season, the Canadiens are putting the time to good use, and that should help the Canadiens ensure that they set themselves up for a better year in 2018-19. Jacob de la Rose becoming an option to play an effective centre role could be part of that process.