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Canadiens 2017 Top 25 Under 25: #2 Jonathan Drouin

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Drouin injects some much-needed playmaking ability into the Canadiens’ lineup.

Tennis: Rogers Cup Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Rumours of the Montreal Canadiens’ interest in Jonathan Drouin began circulating at the beginning of 2016 when it was revealed that the player had requested a trade from the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The former third-overall pick had been limited to a minor role on the team with all the offensive talent it possessed at forward, leaving him unable to find a stable role in the top six. Recovering from an injury in the first part of the season wasn’t helping to improve matters. With the belief that he wasn’t quite at the level he needed to be, Drouin was assigned to the AHL.

He played seven games for the Syracuse Crunch on what he believed was a simple conditioning stint. With no indication that a recall was coming from the NHL team, the decision was made to stop playing for the AHL squad. The move earned a suspension from the Lightning, and he returned home to train and wait for Tampa Bay to honour his trade request.

General manager Steve Yzerman wasn’t willing to move such a valuable asset with what little leverage he possessed after the request went public, and the 2016 trade deadline arrived with Drouin still a member of the organization. No longer able to be moved, Drouin requested to be reinstated, and was allowed to rejoin the Crunch.

He played a further 10 games for the team, scoring nine goals in that span. With Steven Stamkos unable to play while dealing with a blood clot issue, Tampa Bay needed an offensive player for a post-season run, and they didn’t have to go far to find one.

Image credit: EliteProspects

Drouin returned a more determined player, not simply capitalizing on the opportunities that fell to him, but actively seeking to be a difference-maker.

"I'm not waiting for something to happen; I'm chasing it," he explained to the Tampa Bay Times. "I'm creating something. Just being more aggressive."

After posting 10 points in just 21 regular-season games, Drouin recorded 14 in 17 post-season contests for the Lightning. With six of those points coming on the power play, he helped a bewilderingly inefficient man advantage (28th in the regular season, at 15.8%) cope with the loss of Stamkos.

Drouin kept that newfound tenacity up when the 2016-17 season started. After having Stamkos as one of his most common even-strength linemates in his first two seasons, he played mostly with Alex Killorn and Valtteri Filppula last year, and that may have played a part in him becoming more a shooter. His shots per 60 minutes of ice time rose from about five in both his rookie and sophomore season to eight, helping him to smash his previous career high with 21 goals, and set a new bar for points with 53.

Days before the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the request to be given his chance in a new environment was answered with a trade to the Canadiens. The pending restricted free agent was exchanged for Mikhail Sergachev in a move that helped bolster the Lightning’s defence corps. Drouin signed a contract with the Canadiens shortly after the deal, committing to the team on a six-year term.

Voting

The majority of panellists had Drouin at #2, though he did receive six votes as the top player under 25 in the organization, including the averaged vote from over 500 community members.

Drouin posed the greatest threat to Alex Galchenyuk’s #1 ranking since the American took that spot in 2014, and the two seem poised to duel for that status again next year.

Strengths

Drouin is a playmaking forward, with his passing being his biggest contribution to the offence. It is that passing that allowed him to be a standout in his draft year, with 64 of his 105 points being assists for a potent Halifax Mooseheads team. With teammate Nathan MacKinnon (taken two spots higher as the top pick in the 2013 NHL draft) playing for the Colorado Avalanche in 2013-14, Drouin was able to beat his previous stellar season with 108 points, contributing 79 assists in just 49 games.

He had 28 assists in his rookie year, ranking fifth among first-year players. He didn’t beat that original mark by much in his third year, but his 32 helpers ranked fourth on a team that included stars Victor Hedman (56 assists) and Nikita Kucherov (45).

His elite-level speed gives him opportunities to put those passing skills to use. He’s not afraid to carry the puck through the neutral zone, and defencemen have to back off to defend against his oncoming pace, which allows him to gain the blue line with regularity.

In the offensive zone he uses that speed to skate with the puck, drawing the attention of defenders and opening up new passing and shooting lanes. He has shifty puck-handling skills that allow him to deke around opposition players.

All of those skills combine to make him a very effective power-play contributor. Of his 53 points 26 came with the man advantage, placing him just behind those aforementioned stars for third on the team last season.

He has played two main roles on the power play: either manning the point in a four-forward setup or posting up like Stamkos at the left faceoff dot.

He and Kucherov formed a dynamic duo on the man advantage last season. Sharing the ice for about 170 of Drouin’s 200 minutes of power-play time, Kucherov assisted on six of Drouin’s nine power-play goals, while Drouin registered a point on 10 of Kucherov’s 17 tallies.

The versatility extends to more than the power play. A natural left-winger, he has seen time on the right side and even taken a few shifts at centre. With his speed and puck-handling, he’s not limited to one specific area of the ice, so where he begins his shift isn’t necessarily where you’ll find him once the clock starts running.

Weaknesses

One of the parts of Drouin’s game that has changed is a higher shot volume, but goal-scoring isn’t a strong part of his game. Despite more shots on target, he was only able to contribute nine goals at five-on-five in 2016-17. For comparison that would have placed him seventh on the Canadiens last season behind the likes of rookie Artturi Lehkonen and even Phillip Danault, whose offensive production was the main point of criticism last season.

When he gets in tight he’s able to use his quick hands to score on dekes, but from farther out he tends to rely on a relatively weak slapshot that won’t often beat NHL netminders.

His five-on-five possession play was fairly average. The top players all received an offensively-skewed deployment in Tampa Bay last season, with Drouin getting 57.1% of his end-zone starts at the attacking end. His puck-control stats didn’t reflect that deployment, with a relative Corsi-for percentage of just +0.6%.

He did see 53.8% of the scoring chances go his team’s way as his line was able to make the most of the possession it did control. For the first time in his career he finished with a positive scoring-chance differential, his +2.1% ranking sixth on the team among forwards to play at least 40 games.

There’s also the matter of that holdout he had as a 20-year-old, second-year NHLer. Not content with how things were going personally in an organization that was a playoff contender, his decision was to stop playing hockey altogether.

He’s now joining a team with a head coach who placed the team’s top young player on the fourth line at the end of year. He also left one team filled with quality forwards that blocked his path to a top role to join another. If Julien decides that his particular skill set would be best used in a position outside the top two lines, that past history could raise concerns of another rift.

Projection

To be the most successful, Drouin should be placed with shooters who can take advantage of his playmaking skills and prevent him from trying to do the goal-scoring himself. He’s a gifted offensive player, and the Canadiens do have several players who could benefit from his talents.

The best option to join him is perennial 30-plus-goal-scorer Max Pacioretty. The only issue is that both players are left-wingers. The team could move Drouin over to the right side, but then you’re making the defensive tasks of a player still developing his overall game even more difficult. It would also force him to start breakouts — one of his strongest traits — either on his backhand along the boards or with the puck exposed to the middle of the ice.

The second candidate is former 30-goal man Galchenyuk. That partnership would be highly beneficial to both sides. Drouin gets a sniper to set up with his playmaking skills and Galchenyuk no longer has to struggle with trying to deke around three or four players on zone entries, and would be able to take advantage of his underutilized shot.

That line would likely need quite a bit of sheltering, giving tougher minutes to the other trios. Adding Lehkonen provides more of a defensive cushion and also gives Drouin another quality shot to work with. That particular line would be quite compatible, with complementary skills as highlighted in our recent lineup projection based on underlying metrics.

There’s also the possibility he’s asked to play centre. He has seen a bit of time starting in the middle, taking 138 faceoffs last year. His winning percentage of 44.2% wasn’t significantly better than Galchenyuk’s mark last year, and therefore it shouldn’t be expected that he’ll take the role for that reason alone. Playing centre would put him in position to send a pass in any direction, so it may be something that is experimented with over the course of the season.

His placement in a five-on-five configuration is up in the air, but a role on the top power-play unit should be almost assured. The Canadiens spent a substantial portion of their man-advantage time last season circling in the neutral zone after being denied the opposition blue line, and Drouin will help to improve that success rate dramatically.

Not only will that let the team’s top offensive players get more opportunities this year, they’ll have a dynamic offensive talent setting them up. Drouin will have Pacioretty and/or Galchenyuk teeing up for a shot, not to mention Shea Weber at the blue line who can be picked out from anywhere in the zone by a player not afraid to fire a pass through traffic.

With the right deployment, Jonathan Drouin should be a very important part of the Canadiens’ offence. The 22-year-old will only get better as his game develops in Montreal over at least the next six years.

Stats via Natural Stat Trick