Many believed the 2017-18 season would be a make-or-break year for Jacob de la Rose in his quest to become a full-time NHL player. This was mostly because the 24-year-old centre appeared in just nine games in the previous season — a personal low since first entering the league in 2014-15. After impressing in the latter half of the final season for the St. John’s IceCaps, he was either primed to break into the NHL full time or find himself stuck in 13th-forward purgatory.
Fortunately, he did take a step forward last season. The Swede started the campaign with the big club, remained there for the entire season, and appeared in a career-high 55 games.
The 6’3” forward was used mostly as a fourth-line centre, averaging 11:51 last season. His new head coach, Claude Julien, also gave him some time in the top six.
“De la Rose is a guy who grew up being an offensive player and when he turned pro at a young age back home [in Sweden] they made him a defensive player,” Julien said prior to a game versus the Washington Capitals on January 19. “We’re hoping he can discover that [offence] a little bit.”
The Swede was given the chance to centre the top line between Alex Galchenyuk and Jonathan Drouin — a move that lasted less than half the game. He then had some more opportunities for top-six minutes later in the season, but never found the scoring consistency required to merit a long stay.
He did, however, see more regular time, which helped him put up career highs in assists (eight) and points (12). Still, the offensive side of the game was an area of concern.
As one of the only natural centres on the roster, de la Rose’s leash was long, and he made the most out of it by improving in other aspects of the game. All in all, it earned him a two-year, $1.8 million contract extension that he signed on July 6.
De la Rose’s votes ranged from 7 to 19 with an average adjusted vote of 13.42. He is the final member of this year’s rendition of T25U25 to finish with an average rank higher than 10.
Those who voted de la Rose among the top 10 likely respect his ability to maintain a spot in an NHL lineup, while those who voted the Swede below 15 likely see his limited production as a ceiling that Montreal Canadiens prospects currently outside of the NHL can surpass.
Top 25 Under 25 History
De la Rose’s time in the T25U25 is a pattern of growth and decline.
From 2013 to 2015 de la Rose climbed from 17 to 6. However, after showing little improvement, the centreman fell to 15 in 2016.
He jumped back up to number 10 in last year’s ranking after good development in the latter half of the 2016-17 AHL season. Despite spending all of his time in the NHL last season, he still drops one spot to number 11.
De la Rose has always been recognized for his work ethic and compatibility with teammates. These are characteristics that he has carried throughout his career. It was his “two-way play” that seemed to disappear between his draft year and where he is in the NHL today.
Former Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien used de la Rose as a shutdown forward the second he donned the Canadiens sweater. This may have hindered the centreman’s development in the offensive zone.
However, if we can get into the headspace of Therrien and look at de la Rose’s tools, it makes sense as to why the former coach used him that way. De la Rose is an explosive skater with a strong pivot, allowing him to quickly get in front of his opponents on the backcheck. The eye test has also given the perception that de la Rose has a good understanding of defensive-zone coverage.
However, likely because of his young age and unreasonable usage, de la Rose didn’t translate his tools to the numbers you should expect from a shutdown forward.
In three seasons under Therrien, de la Rose experienced only 26.43% of his zone starts in the offensive end. For comparison, only five players who played more than one game in the NHL last season had a lower zone-start percentage than that mark.
Julien was kinder to de la Rose, and it shows on the stat sheet. The Swede’s numbers moved from bad to competent — albeit not great — and as a result, he was able to spend more time transitioning out of his zone. It ultimately led to him tying his career high in goals, with four.
He has a good stride and used it to get to the front of the net on the goal above. He tends to play a very “safe” brand of hockey, but with a little more urgency, it isn’t unreasonable to think that he can get to the scoring areas more consistently.
Even when he is able to get there, however, he hasn’t shown to be very adept at converting chances into offence.
“He is a little slow to release the puck, but he has a hard shot when he decides to let it go,” I wrote in his profile last year. This is what de la Rose did on November 15, 2017 against the Columbus Blue Jackets:
Some say he is still holding onto the puck to this day.
De la Rose has a good hockey mind and he is able to get to the scoring areas with his speed and strength, but he still needs to gain confidence in his shot if he wants to score goals. He has just eight of them in 119 NHL games; that output is similar what has been produced by the likes of Zac Rinaldo and Chris Thorburn.
The centreman is also a very underwhelming passer, finishing below the 50th percentile in all of Ryan Stimson’s passing project numbers, including the defensive metric.
And therein lies the biggest problem: everyone and their uncle knows that de la Rose may never be an offensive threat, but as it is now, he is also not a positive defensive contributor either.
A player who can’t score has to keep the puck out of the dangerous areas of his own zone, and he hasn’t been able to do that consistently to this point in his career.
De le Rose will likely start the year with the Canadiens as their fourth line centre behind Jonathan Drouin, Phillip Danault, and Tomas Plekanec.
Whether he finds an offensive game or not, if he does not become a net-positive player in terms of goal differential, he may be playing his final season for the team with a a slew of young prospects waiting to take his spot.