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Jonathan Drouin showing encouraging signs of becoming a true first-line centre

I wrote an article this summer analyzing the possibility of Jonathan Drouin playing centre for the Montreal Canadiens this season. At the time, it was nothing more than speculation.

There was not much hope of actually seeing him there, especially with how conservative Montreal had been as an organization. Unexpectedly, it looks like both the Habs and Drouin are committed to the experience a few months later. Considering how he has played in the pre-season, the gamble might pay off in the end.

Last year’s performance

Despite playing centre in junior, Drouin had very limited time at the position in the NHL before joining the Canadiens. Last year, during his stint down the middle with the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was easy to draw the conclusion that he didn’t act like a traditional centreman most of the time. Although he showed progress from game to game in his positioning and decision-making, he was essentially a winger taking faceoffs.

He had good numbers at the dot and could decently support his team’s defence when he was the first forward on the backcheck. That just didn’t occur very often. His playstyle usually took him deep in the offensive zone, and once he got back he would sit high in the defensive zone anticipating a pass and hoping to rush the puck the other way.

Still, such a small set of games didn’t really mean much. It certainly couldn’t certify that Drouin was unfit to play at the position. Maybe Jon Cooper had a non-traditional approach, preferring to have Yanni Gourde, a winger at the time, retrieve the puck down low and Drouin, the centre, open for breakouts. Maybe both players just decided to play to their strengths, or (the most logical explanation) Drouin didn’t expect to play centre and wasn’t ready to handle those duties last year.

The circumstances forced Cooper’s decision to place him there, being in dire need of another centre due to multiple injuries. Drouin’s abilities, including his great vision of the ice, logically made him a good substitute candidate.

The Lightning kept their winning streak alive while he was at the position, but ultimately Cooper switched Gourde to centre. Gourde had more experience there and showed that he was a better fit for it over the course of Drouin’s tryout.

Pre-season progression

Now, one thing is for sure: Drouin looked a lot more comfortable playing centre for the Habs than he ever did for the Lightning. The regular season has yet to start, and concluding that the local star-in-the-making can fill the void at number-one centre — a hole the organization has had for years, and the most talked about issue of the team in Habs coverage everywhere — only based on a few games is premature.

However, there are a lot of reasons to be excited and some very encouraging signs from his play in the last week. The preparation he had during the summer seems to have paid off.

It’s probable he had the assistance of the coaching staff to plan his transition. By spending the summer with Max Pacioretty, he would have learned a few things from the Captain’s experience with the team as well. Plus, gaining a lot of weight (reports have him at more than 200 pounds now) seems to have made him stronger with and without the puck, and that’s something that should help him hold his own in the more physically demanding aspects of his new position.

That being said, the most important factor in Drouin’s transition is the absence of confusion regarding his role on the ice, contrary to what (assumedly) happened with the Lightning. Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher know that their centre will be supporting the defence, whether that be in the traditional space in the middle of the ice near the blue line, or, due to how fluid the game now is at the NHL level*, contesting the play along the boards.

Those established duties seem to have helped Drouin play fluidly in Claude Julien’s system. At any given time in his zone there’s a better chance of seeing him acting like a true centre: retrieving the puck on the boards from a battle with a defenceman, being in front of the net when the play gets closer to the blue line, and covering for a pinching teammate.

* NHL coaches have openly stated that forward positions don’t matter, as all players have to be equally committed on the forecheck and to the defence. While it’s very true, and something that should help Drouin in his transition, F1 usually remains the centre, and F2, F3 the wingers. It’s important for specific players to have certain default duties as it avoids breakdown in positioning.

Hockey Coaching ABCs

Like many other coaches, Julien uses a 1-2-2 forechecking system. It allows for those switches in roles from forwards as the play descends in the defensive zone. However, it has been stated many times that he’s more reliant on his centres than most. As the season gets underway, it remains to be seen how Julien’s views of Drouin’s role down the middle evolve.

At times, Drouin could have trouble playing an efficient defensive game while directly competing against the top talent in the league. He probably has things to work on before he can become truly efficient at recovering the puck, stopping the opposition’s cycle, and integrating the full coverage duties of a centreman.

Even so, in the pre-season he showed a proper defensive game that has impressed the head coach. He’s able to recognize the times he can be aggressive on the puck-carrier, managing some takeaways, but also seems to understand when he needs to act as support to the defence, rarely skating up ahead of a breakout that has not been fully set in motion.

By placing Drouin down the middle, the major advantage remains that he has a direct effect on establishing control of the play. With his great ability to move the puck, either by carrying it or passing it up, he should improve any line’s transition through the zones.

Instead of sitting high on the boards and having to accelerate from a stop to exit the defensive zone; instead of dealing with a desperation play from a defenceman rimming the puck around; instead of being stuck waiting for the play to come to him, Drouin can now take matters into his own hands.

He’ll be the one receiving the puck from his wingers to exit the defensive zone, and in return finding them with stretch passes. He’ll be the one jump-starting the play and leading the offensive charge. And maybe, with enough hard work and coaching, he’ll be the number-one centre of the Habs.

The potential is there. He looks like a completely different player when comparing his play at centre last season to his games with the Habs in pre-season. It might be a new-found motivation that fueled the change, and Drouin certainly seems to have the drive to accomplish something like this.

It’s very early to call the organization’s decision to put him in the middle a success. He has yet to face more challenging matchups. However, it’s hard to not get excited at the prospect of having someone effective at turning defence into offence beside Pacioretty, and seeing on a regular basis some of the plays the first line managed on Saturday night.