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Detailing the improving defensive game of Jonathan Drouin

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Drouin strong offensive numbers are the direct result of the attention to detail in his own zone.

NHL: JAN 28 Flames at Canadiens Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jonathan Drouin is up to eight points in seven games, a hot pace that matches the ones of many of his teammates. There isn’t any noticeable change to his offensive game ... except chemistry.

Drouin has probably been miscast as a playmaker, a flashy creator who breaks defences down on his own. In Junior, maybe he was that player, but the mean reverse hits and the through-the-legs dangles have left his game. Now, he is much more of a facilitator. He allows teammates to make plays through him, to bounce the puck off his stick for deadly give-and-gos and fast-paced transitions.

That kind of game works best with teammates who can expand the advantages the winger gives them. Nick Suzuki and Josh Anderson, while vastly different players, both possess qualities that mesh well with Drouin’s. His pinpoint cross-ice passes have allowed Anderson to gallop even faster toward the offensive zone, and enable Suzuki to dance around the defence.

What Drouin has learned over his last few seasons is that to truly play the facilitator role, he can’t only limit himself to the offensive side of the game. He is not one of those game-breakers who receives special permissions. Drouin has to enable his teammates defensively, too.

He won’t ever be nominated for the Selke Trophy, but if he can maintain his league-average quality of defence, it will be enough to keep the trust of the coaching staff and make him a positive possession player.

HockeyViz

Of course, the Habs have only played seven games. We need to see consistency from Drouin before we call his defensive transformation complete. That being said, there are many encouraging signs, especially considering the types of games the Canadiens have played recently. The head-to-heads against Vancouver weren’t the most controlled outings, and in past scoring fests Drouin used to join in on the fun a little too much. It hasn’t been the case this season.

Here is the full defensive sequence before his goal against Vancouver on Saturday. It features plenty of moves to assist in defence and accurate reads.

As he enters the zone, Drouin follows the boards to cut off the easy passing lane to the point, and then, while still blocking that passing lane with his rear-end on the wall, he slides toward the puck carrier, forcing him to get rid of the puck. As the play moves below the goal line, the winger moves below the hashmarks, the expected response in the Habs’ system. He maintains a position that would allow him to jump on a rimmed puck, but also to cut the passing lane to a Vancouver attacker standing in the slot.

Vancouver attacks his side of the ice again, and Drouin, seeing the carrier with his head down and on his backhand, pressures the vulnerable opponent, ultimately creating the turnover that led to the breakaway goal.

There were plenty more interesting defensive sequences from Drouin in the Calgary game. I included some of them in the video below.

You can see Drouin maintaining a high defensive positioning when his defencemen pinch offensively, angling the forecheck to the boards, forcing passes, attaching himself to the next puck-carrier, and continuing his pressure all over the ice.

I also included some mistakes. Drouin still takes some bad routes and stops with the puck too much on the boards to try long passes. But when that happened, he didn’t compound his errors by frantically chasing opponents. He skated hard, recovered, and kept defensive positioning, and in the end denied access to inside ice.

The video ends with Drouin’s assist on Anderson’s goal. I don’t know which winger displayed the most skill in that sequence. Anderson’s tap-in required impressive hand-eye coordination, but Drouin’s bank-pass was incredibly clever. Most players in that situation would have caught the puck and then looked to make a pass, a play that would have given time for the Flames’ F3 to close in on Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

Staying true to his facilitator role, Drouin showed great problem-solving skills and awareness. He enabled Kotkaniemi by choosing a more direct pass, a soft backhand touch that bounced the puck around his own coverage to his teammate, one that allowed the disc to be accepted in full flight on the way to the game-winning goal.