There is not a more intriguing player on the Montreal Canadiens than Jonathan Drouin. Certain nights, he seems to possess all the skill in the world; on others, he is almost invisible failing to make an impact.
Before the 2013 draft, Drouin was considered by some to be a candidate for the number one overall pick. He was just coming off of a monster season with the Halifax Mooseheads, scoring 41 goals and 64 assists in 49 games. The fact that he ended up being selected after his teammate, Nathan MacKinnon, and Finnish centre Aleksander Barkov didn’t take away from his talent — the Tampa Bay Lightning certainly thought they had gotten an impact forward for years to come with their selection.
Drouin didn’t immediately make the Lightning’s squad the following year, and instead was sent down to work on his play away from the puck. Dominique Ducharme, the coach of the Mooseheads at the time, experimented with his best forward, moving him to centre where he was more exposed to the defensive game. It didn’t make Drouin a 200-foot player, but it prepared him a bit better for the NHL. Making the jump can be tricky, even for star junior player. And it was for Drouin.
His saga with the Lightning — a trade request and a holdout — was a good example of that. Since then, Drouin has had a few good seasons, but still has not managed to establish himself as the elite player he was touted to be, and that despite being on pace for a career high in 2018-19.
The NHL is a lot different than junior hockey. Players are faster and stronger. They are more patient. They are rarely caught over-committing and know how to contain talented forwards by effectively pushing them to the outside of the rink where they are less dangerous.
The shift, a clip of one of Jonathan Drouin’s best sequence in the QMJHL, shows plays that were a trademark of the player in junior, but are no longer possible for him in the NHL.
Defenders coming directly at him, lunging for the puck, not supporting each other, getting bodied off the puck, and giving an ocean of space in slot, allowed Drouin to pull off great moves to find players that had been sitting unchecked in front of the net. It is the magic of junior hockey; but unfortunately, not the reality of the NHL. It is a big reason why scouts look for translatable skill, and are not projecting highlight-reel worthy sequences directly to the big league.
Not that Jonathan Drouin didn’t show a lot of those translatable skills in junior. It was clear he had dominant handling capabilities, was already a pretty good skater, knew how to exploit space, and had great vision. Those elements are still all evident today.
The problem is that, now, they don’t seem to be working together consistently to make Drouin the master playmaker that he was against players his age. Simply put, his game doesn’t seem to have matured as much as it should have to make him a dominant player in the NHL. He is gifted, but when everyone else is, it is not enough.
Success at lower levels is a good predictor of success at higher levels. There is statistical models out there that base entire scouting strategies on translating junior production to the top leagues.
But, sometimes, success can also be a barrier to improvement. Why? Because, if something worked in the past, why shouldn’t it now?
If a player’s incomplete game still translates to some production, it’s possible for him to think the formulas he employs still work in his new environment (or point to external factors as to why he isn’t achieving the consistent high totals he had previously) when the focus should be on adapting, finding ways to improve to be on the same level as the best as the challenges grow.
Jonathan Drouin is still capable to be a top forward in the NHL. But for it to happen, he needs to pick up better habits to make use of his incredible skill-set, and create more consistent opportunities for himself.
One of the major flaws of Drouin’s game in the NHL is that he doesn’t move his feet enough. He has a tendency to stop when he gets possession of the puck in the offensive zone.
Drouin’s skating ability is a weapon he should make better use of. The forward is at his best when he has a speed difference against opponents. He shows this again and again off the rush, but the same strategy could be applied in-zone.
Being stationary might allow him to locate his teammates better, but NHL defences have no problem cutting the passing lanes of a flat-footed opponent. By not moving, he removes one piece of the offensive equation; he also limits the time he has with the puck by standing still, and the effectiveness of his handling moves. What he is truly doing is stacking the odds of making a good play against him.
But strictly moving his feet is not enough. Drouin has to do so with purpose. He has to take control of the space he is afforded and become a threat with possession to fuel his playmaking.
To get the puck to a free teammates in dangerous areas, he has to attract more than one defender onto himself. This is done by using his quick feet and handling ability to challenge and escape the defence, attacking the slot, or at least circling the offensive zone to force the defence to make decisions in their coverage, which, in turn, generates mistakes.
For Drouin, this way of playing also means being comfortable with his back turned to the play and using more shoulder checks to locate his options.
His assist on Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s goal against the Florida Panthers was a good example of what staying in movement can do for Drouin. He entered the zone, cut back against a defender, looked over his shoulder for an option and saw Kotkaniemi coming as support from the bench. He faked a pass to the point, quickly evaded a poke check, and reached Kotkaniemi with a cross-ice feed for the goal.
If Drouin had skated in and planted his feet, he might have avoided the first opponent, but the rest of the defence would have set themselves easily to take away any possible plays. The fact that he remained elusive, never revealing his intentions, allowed him to be a step ahead of the opposition, focus the attention on himself, and let Kotkaniemi glide in place for a perfect one-timer.
Another element Drouin needs to get better at is protecting the puck. It is very possible to play a finesse game in the NHL, many top forwards have proved it. But puck retrievals will always remain a race of who can first get body positioning. For Drouin, simply placing his body between the defender and the puck as he first gains possession would go a long way in giving him an occasion to skate away with it instead of being instantly stripped.
The same principles apply in his defensive game.
The best offensive chances are generated from creating turnovers in transition. In those cases, the opposition is caught far away from what would be a good defensive position, and it can often generate odd-man rushes. By staying in movement in the offensive zone, aware of his surroundings, ready to act if a change of possession happen, Drouin maximizes the chance to catch-up to opponents and break plays to give his team a chance at returning to offence in a favourable position.
Drouin doesn’t need to become as defensively responsible as Phillip Danault, or a net-driver like Brendan Gallagher to be more effective. Keeping his feet moving, his body between the defender and the puck on retrievals, and shoulder checking more are not major changes to Jonathan Drouin’s game or identity. There are things he is able to do, knows how to do, and simply needs to incorporate in his every night play more frequently.
In the NHL, a big determinant of success is high-end skill, but also making details like this habits. They bring consistency and separate elite players from the rest.