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Jonathan Drouin and the burden of expectations

Jonathan Drouin has not played a game in a Montreal Canadiens uniform yet. In fact, he’s already changed his number twice since arriving. Despite this, and through no fault of his own, the expectations are sky high for the Quebec native.

Prior to his physical arrival in Montreal, Drouin was already saddled with the pressure of being acquired in exchange for top prospect Mikhail Sergachev. Given that the price paid for the young forward was sending the Habs’ top prospect to a divisional rival, Drouin’s bar was already set high, with expectations that he immediately perform and produce in his new setting.

If being part of a major trade with a division rival didn’t raise expectations for Drouin, his arrival also coincided with the departure of fan favourite and major offensive weapon Alexander Radulov. Now, not only is he battling expectations related to a high-profile trade from the off-season, he also has to replace arguably the best one-year player Montreal has ever had. With Radulov now headed deep to the heart of Texas, Drouin becomes intrinsically linked in the hearts of many fans as his replacement, an association compounded by how Marc Bergevin clearly intended to land Drouin, then also re-sign Radulov, Alex Galchenyuk, and Andrei Markov with the large boost to the cap space available created by the loss of Alexei Emelin.

Now, it’s not Drouin’s fault that Radulov left. In fact, no player can really be blamed for that, especially when you consider that the Russian’s initial demand was an eight-year contract. The burden on Drouin comes from fans expecting him to be exactly what Radulov was: a tenacious, point-producing winger who never leaves the top line. After all, both are highly skilled wingers with top-notch playmaking and the ability to make jaws drop on a nightly basis.

Unfortunately, despite their high-end skill, Drouin and Radulov are two very different players stylistically. Radulov likes to get into the dirty areas and battle for the pucks before finding open teammates or driving the net himself. He had the ability to drive even-strength goal-scoring in a way that Habs fans had not seen in a long time, and something that the team might lack this upcoming season.

Drouin is much the opposite, with most of his production coming via the power play in Tampa. He isn’t going to appear lazy like Alexander Semin who preferred to clean up along the fringes, but fans shouldn’t expect to see #92 barreling into the zone and charging headlong into a board battle in the corners. While Drouin will certainly produce plenty of points and wow people with his playmaking on a regular basis, he won’t be the snarling dynamo that Radulov was. More likely, Habs fans will see Drouin riding shotgun to a play-driver like Max Pacioretty, rather than leading that line on his own.

Finally, there’s the great debate at centre, where it feels like fans have been waiting for Galchenyuk’s coronation as the mythical top-line centre missing from the Canadiens for many years. With Drouin entering the fold, it seemed almost natural to pair him with the dynamic American and create a line to wreak havoc in the offensive zone while Phillip Danault eats up heavier defensive minutes. Instead, both Claude Julien and Marc Bergevin have stated that Drouin will get every chance to prove himself as a centre this upcoming season while Galchenyuk will be starting on the wing.

Alex Galchenyuk to start the year at wing, and other highlights from Canadiens golf tournament

The problem is that Drouin has spent little of his professional career at centre, and hasn’t logged any significant minutes there since his early days in junior hockey. There is a chance that this move to centre could work out and this pre-season panic is all for naught. However, the issue remains that the team refuses to utilize their former top draft pick at his natural position — one where he scored 30 goals just two seasons ago.

The Habs acquired a natural winger to play centre in order to shift a natural centre to the wing. Drouin will be move to the middle to learn the position, despite currently being about as adept in the position as Galchenyuk. This insistence from management is almost a level of self-sabotage, and they have to hope Drouin is a quick study.

This all adds another layer of pressure onto the shoulders of Drouin, who now has to be a top-line centre, replace a dynamic fan-favorite forward, and live up to the expectations of a major trade. He has the entire spotlight focused on him right now, one that hasn’t shone so intensely upon a single player since Carey Price broke into the NHL and was immediately expected to restore a mediocre franchise to its former glory.

When Price stumbled out of the gate in his career, there was a highly vocal contingent who wanted him shipped out of town and Jaroslav Halak anointed as the future in net.

Fans and pundits alike are expecting Drouin to be a messiah for this team, one that finally leads them over the hump and back to a Stanley Cup. Maybe he’ll do that, but it likely won’t be immediate, not unless the team adds the major piece it still needs on defence.

If Drouin stumbles or the team struggles this year, the burden forced upon his shoulders is going to come crashing down, and much like Price before him, he’ll have to fight off those trying to bury him under the unfair expectations he never asked for.

Give Drouin the time he needs. He isn’t going to magically produce a Stanley Cup overnight. Let him grow like Price, without the bombardment of criticism the best goaltender in the world once had to face.

The Habs will be the ones reaping the rewards in the end.

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