Analysis: Properly evaluating Jonathan Drouin’s play with the Montreal Canadiens
Some have been disappointed in the play of the off-season acquisition, but how is he faring in his new role in Montreal?
It's a weird thing to judge a player's performance by the amount of times his or her name is said during the broadcast of a game.
On Thursday, based on that metric, an on-air commenter said that Jonathan Drouin was not attracting enough attention, as if it was an indication of lacklustre play. It was a comment that seemed to also relate to the poor fit Drouin is for the Montreal Canadiens playing the centre position.
With the problems the team has had scoring goals, it's reasonable to ask if the responsibilities that come with playing that position are preventing him from using his full offensive potential. However, counting the instances of his name being uttered is a lousy way to judge a player’s performance.
It's true that he didn't record a point that night, but his trio was still dictating the flow of the game when they were on the ice. In fact, his line finished with the best shot-attempts-for percentage relative to the rest of the team.
And Drouin was directly responsible for most of their scoring chances, sometimes with subtle but smart offensive reads.
In this play, #92 sees that Andrew Shaw will be first on the puck after a dump-in. Instead of rushing to the front of the net only to be covered, Drouin delays his entry slightly. The defenders completely forget about him and he gets a shot from the top of the circle.
But as in most games, Drouin was at his best with the puck on his stick and an opportunity to carry it up the ice. He was at the origin of the most entries into the offensive zone with possession in that game; a big reason why his line managed to spend the majority of the game on the attack.
Most players presented with the situation in the clip above would give the puck to a teammate for a chip-in. Not Drouin.
Instead, he uses a fake on the first forechecker and skates to the middle of the ice where he is more threatening due to having multiple options: carrying the puck in himself or passing it right before crossing the blue line.
His rushes in that game often started after getting the puck out of his own zone first, often from the position of a winger, which is where the argument that he is playing the wrong position stands on firmest ground.
In both clips above, #92 fills either the F2 or F3 (winger) roles in the defensive zone, letting Shaw support the defence as F1 (centre). Drouin still makes good plays from the position as he intercepts the puck to skate with it the other way, or swings in to take a short pass to do the same.
It's common for forwards to exchange positions during the game, as it's an incredibly fluid and fast sport. But for every play where Drouin fills a centreman’s expected defensive duties well, there are a few where he completely defers those to his wingers.
In the play below, he spins in the neutral zone in an attempt to take the puck away from a New Jersey Devils player then doesn't hustle back to take the player that easily went past him. He instead chooses to cover the high boards and lets Alex Galchenyuk assume the F1 role.
Drouin has still grown noticeably as a two-way player this season. He has better positioning overall and is more aware of potential threats in the defensive end. But because of how good of a puck-rusher he is, and those occasional lapses in his play, questioning whether he would be better utilized as a winger than a centre will remain.
However, saying that Drouin is not contributing due to this switch to a new position and that his offensive game is being enchained by it is exaggerating the reality.
On Thursday, even if he played somewhere between the defined roles of centre and winger, filling one or the other depending on the situation, he was one of the best players for the Habs. And his ability to create offence was ever-present.
This play was another example of it. He places himself in the right spot to retrieve the puck in the defensive zone while orchestrating the coverage, then exits the zone in possession. At the other end of the ice, he manipulates opponents into letting him get a shot on net with heavy traffic present.
In short, Drouin fully deserves the spotlight every time he jumps off the bench. But properly evaluating his play has become increasingly important due to this new name mentions per 60 minutes stat. There are superior analytical methods that can be used to judge player performance than what can be tracked while listening to the game on the radio.