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Jonathan Drouin is finally able to play his game

The forward is in his comfort zone, and continuing his strong play.

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

By the end of the day on Thursday, all everyone in Montreal was talking about a player born in Ste-Agathe, selected third overall in the NHL Draft, who had a public rift with the team that drafted him.

It’s also how they started the day.

It’s fitting that after a game where Montreal Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin had three assists, two of them primary, all everyone was talking about was a bad bounce on a wrap around clearance that hit off the referee.

The narrative surrounding Drouin has always been about unfulfilled promise. That’s what happens when you’re brought into a city — especially one like Montreal — with the expectation you’re the next local superstar. The issue wasn’t so much that Drouin couldn’t meet the expectations as it was the extremely limited amount of people who could.

When you’re brought in as the next Guy Lafleur, and the person traded for you is seen to be the next Andrei Markov, the chances are you’re going to disappoint people. Not to mention when the team decides to slot you in as the Canadiens number one centre.

Drouin wasn’t perfect but he did finish his first two seasons with Montreal as the team’s third-leading scorer. Going into his third season with the team, however, no one wanted to talk about the 18 goals, or 53 points he had in 2018-19. It was the fact that in his final 18 games, he had one goal and two assists, 16 of those games he was held without a point.

He was taking it on the chin, and he knew he wanted to be better. A lot was made about the off-season film sessions he had with his coach in junior, Dominique Ducharme. Last season, he started with 15 points in his first 18 games before leaving the 19th with an injury.

That injury would keep him out of action until February, and again, the focus was on how his season finished — not the overall picture. How did that season end? Eight games, zero points before suffering another injury that forced him out until the season’s pause in March.

“Last year I couldn’t control my injury,” Drouin said recently. “I liked my start to the season, I liked what I was doing but injuries are a part of hockey. I was behind when I came back. Everybody was in playoff mode so it was tough for me to adapt.”

Then Drouin, like the Canadiens themselves, got a reprieve. They were the 24th team who would enter a 24-team post-season. Everyone would be on the same page. Like the organization itself, it was a chance for the forward to rewrite the narrative.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki had their coming out parties that stole the headlines. Tied with Suzuki for the team lead in post-season scoring was Drouin, who just happened to play with both young centres throughout the team’s bubble run.

The chemistry with Suzuki was immediate. He had two assists in each of the team’s final two games against the Philadelphia Flyers. Going into this year’s camp, the pair got Josh Anderson on their right wing. Like the line of Drouin, Suzuki, and Joel Armia, this line has the same mix.

It’s something he wanted to take advantage of going into this season.

“I definitely brought [the bubble performance] to my offseason,” Drouin said before the team’s opening game against Toronto. “I want to have the same start to this season. I want to be on the puck, be in constant movement. When I move my feet things go well[...]. I wanted to make sure I kept that confidence going.”

Drouin has been miscast as a centre, or as the primary puck carrier, or as the primary puck retriever, neither of those roles is his best. With Suzuki, and Anderson he’s none of those. He’s not forced to carry the puck, nor is he forced to retrieve it. He’s able to float around, waiting for openings, and creating plays.

The Canadiens’ winger is actually a cerebral player. It’s not usually something used to describe him like it is Suzuki, or some others but his hockey sense and vision has always been a strength. That’s another thing that allows them to have success as a line, as his three assists showed in the season opener.

“We talked a lot on the ice, we talked a lot on the bench,” Drouin said after Wednesday’s game. “Every time there was a face off, we knew what we were doing, we had a plan. On the second goal at the end of the first period, we talked about that on the bench. It’s fun to talk about that and then to execute it. We need to continue to talk, discuss and share what we’re seeing on the ice.”

But again, that wasn’t what people were talking about. Suzuki was praised for his goal and overall game, Anderson for his as well. The third member of that line, people said, was just along for the ride. That is, until an innocent clearance attempt ended up in the back of his net for Toronto’s tying goal.

“I can’t do anything,” Drouin said about the play. “I hit the ref. I can’t control where he is on the ice.”

He also can’t control what people say about him, or what they expect from him. He can only control what he does on the ice. He can finally play to his strengths, and he’s working to keep putting himself in a position to succeed.

“It’s only one game,” he said on Wednesday. “[There’s] still a lot to work on, a lot of video to watch.”