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The Jonathan Drouin conundrum: Where does the forward fit in the lineup?

Drouin’s talents and value is undeniable, but finding the best place in the lineup for the forward is more complicated.

Detroit Red Wings v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

When the Montreal Canadiens acquired Jonathan Drouin in the summer of 2017, the hope was that he would be the franchise centre that had eluded the organization for many years. The 2017-18 season clearly indicated that those plans were not realistic, and Drouin started his second campaign back where he had spent the majority of his professional career: left wing.

The return to wing helped Drouin as a player, as he would equal his career-best single-season point total. At the same time, while an initial chemistry was forged with Max Domi, it did not survive the second half of the season. The coaching staff moved Drouin up with Phillip Danault and down with Jesperi Kotkaniemi, but both moves were met with mixed results. Ultimately, Drouin’s offensive output vanished down the stretch, recording only seven points after game 55 on the schedule.

It’s clear that Drouin is not a bad hockey player. His passing and creativity are definitive assets to a Canadiens team that, in the recent past, could be offensively challenged at times. It’s also clear that while the team seemed to gel with one another last season, coalescing into a singular unit under Claude Julien’s system, Drouin often appeared outside of that entity, visibly distinct from the rest of the group.

When we break down Drouin’s season, of his 1,068 minutes of five-on-five ice time, he spent 592 with Domi (55%), 232 with Danault (22%), and 152 with Kotkaniemi (14%). Of his time with Domi, a full 50% was with Andrew Shaw as the third forward, while Artturi Lehkonen (17%) and Paul Byron (11%) also saw considerable duty next to Domi and Drouin.

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of Drouin’s time on the top line was next to the inseparable duo of Danault and Brendan Gallagher (86%), while Drouin’s stint with Kotkaniemi was mostly accompanied by Joel Armia (67%).

Linemates for Jonathan Drouin given as percentage of 5v5 TOI.

To this end, we’ll investigate three line combinations here in greater detail: Drouin-Danault-Gallagher, Drouin-Domi-Shaw, and Drouin-Kotkaniemi-Armia.

Always a bridesmaid

Looking at the numbers, all three put up possession numbers at or just below the team average. In terms of goals, the Drouin-Domi-Shaw combination is clearly ahead of the other two, but that +7 goal differential is also partially fueled by a 103.8 PDO in the same way that the -1 and -2 differentials with Danault and Kotkaniemi are hindered by 97.7 and 96.0 PDO values, respectively.

Worryingly, the expected goal differential is poor for the two “top-six” lines, with Drouin-Danault-Gallagher and Drouin-Domi-Shaw both coming in significantly below team average. In general, there’s not much teammate-derived variability in Drouin’s offensive and defensive metrics, which bodes well for his adaptability to play up and down the lineup as necessary.

CF%: percentage of total on-ice shot attempts; CFRel%: CF% metric relative to team average; GF%: percentage of total on-ice goals; GFRel%: GF% metric relative to team average; xGF%: percentage of expected goals; xGFRel%: xGF% metric relative to team average; /60: per 60 minutes 5v5 TOI.

The bigger problem is that these numbers indicate that Drouin’s presence is not bolstering his lines in any way. Most of the numbers are at or below the team average, which, given that the team average includes metrics of the third- and fourth-liners, is not something you expect or want from your better players.

More strikingly, it can be argued that all of these lines improve when Drouin is not a part of them. Tomas Tatar blows Drouin’s metrics out of the water when alongside Danault and Gallagher, offering vastly superior defensive metrics without sacrificing offence.

CF: shot attempts for; CA: shot attempts against; CDiff: shot attempt differential; GF: goals for; GA: goals against; GDiff: goal differential; xGF: expected goals for; xGA: expected goals against; xGDiff: expected goal differential; /60: per 60 minutes 5v5 TOI.

Along similar lines, while Drouin’s offensive production with Domi and Shaw was considerable, the underlying statistics are worrying. This manifested in the latter half of last season when Domi’s hot hand cooled somewhat and the line was broken up. Overall, Lehkonen put up better net-goal-difference numbers with Domi and Shaw than Drouin, and Byron likely would have if not for some bad puck luck.

CF: shot attempts for; CA: shot attempts against; CDiff: shot attempt differential; GF: goals for; GA: goals against; GDiff: goal differential; xGF: expected goals for; xGA: expected goals against; xGDiff: expected goal differential; /60: per 60 minutes 5v5 TOI.

As for Drouin’s exploits with Kotkaniemi and Armia, they’re once again (albeit not by as great an extent) overshadowed by the feats of Lehkonen and Byron. In terms of goal production, all three combinations generated roughly the same number of expected goals.

Whether due to the fates or a more tangible reason, Drouin-Kotkaniemi-Armia had supreme difficulty translating chances into goals last season. The presence of Kotkaniemi and Armia did help Drouin on the defensive side, cutting his GA and xGA roughly in half relative to Drouin-Domi-Shaw. But gains at one end of the ice were not enough to overcome losses at the other, and Drouin finds himself behind Lehkonen in terms of actual production and Byron in terms of expected production.

CF: shot attempts for; CA: shot attempts against; CDiff: shot attempt differential; GF: goals for; GA: goals against; GDiff: goal differential; xGF: expected goals for; xGA: expected goals against; xGDiff: expected goal differential; /60: per 60 minutes 5v5 TOI.

What is the solution?

Therein lies the conundrum. Drouin is clearly too talented, too skilled, too useful for the fourth line, but it’s also clear that there’s a more viable alternative to him on each of the team’s top three lines. Tatar is superior next to Danault-Gallagher, Byron next to Domi-Shaw, and Lehkonen next to Kotkaniemi-Armia.

Could the answer be to break up some of the forward pairs established during last season? The problem is that both the Danault-Gallagher and Domi-Shaw pairings feature players who combine to become greater than the sum of their parts.

Using Micah Blake McCurdy’s “threat” metric, which essentially indicates how likely a player’s shot location profile will translate into goals relative to the league-average shot profile, we can see that both Danault and Gallagher and Domi and Shaw generate obscene amounts of offence when together — being nearly 30% more threatening relative to league average. Moreover, only Gallagher is anywhere near that figure (+32%) when apart from his partner (Danault and Domi, +5%; Shaw +3%).

Defensively, the trends are similar, with only Domi this time matching his defensive metrics apart from his partner (please note that decreased threat is desired for defensive metrics).

Offensive and defensive with-you-and-without-you threat metrics. Numbers indicate percentage above or below league average.

So that brings us to what was the third line last year. Here, Lehkonen with Kotkaniemi is the optimal combination, as the two enjoy both elevated offensive and defensive metrics when together. Armia, on the other hand, augments Kotkaniemi’s defence while suppressing his offence.

Offensive and defensive with-you-and-without-you threat metrics. Numbers indicate percentage above or below league average.

Could Drouin-Kotkaniemi-Lehkonen be a possible solution to the question at hand?

The data shows that the three were on the ice at the same time for 8:31 last year across 24 games — in short, it’s a combination that was never really tried last season. In theory, Kotkaniemi and Lehkonen both have more than capable shots, and Drouin’s playmaking and puck-carrying abilities should be able to take advantage. Kotkaniemi and Lehkonen’s defensive acumen should also serve to balance Drouin’s weaknesses in that department.

On the other hand, the trio lacks speed. Drouin is not known for his aggression or acceleration, while Kotkaniemi is still working on his stride and explosiveness as he grows into his body. As such, this line combination could struggle to execute the pressing forecheck that brought the Canadiens so much success last season. Additionally, in order to prevent Drouin from being the last forward back, the ideal situation would involve Drouin carrying the puck below the dots to feed Lehkonen and Kotkaniemi in shooting positions out front, something that isn’t a large element of Drouin’s game at present.

Drouin will have his chances, but for how long?

Ultimately, the Habs — and Drouin — may have found themselves in a situation where the player is not currently part of the optimal top-nine forward alignment for the team. Perhaps, entering the 2019-20 season, the talented forward will have to either play himself into a more familiar role, or wait for someone else to falter.