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Under Pressure: Jonathan Drouin

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This post is part of Canadiens Day on PHT…

“There’s obviously a lot of pressure playing in Montreal, everybody knows that. But for me as a player I think I’d rather have that pressure on myself [here], than some other places.

“I’m French-Canadian and I’m going to thrive on that pressure. I like that stuff.”

That was Jonathan Drouin (per NHL.com) last month, in the wake of a blockbuster trade that saw Montreal send prized d-man Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa Bay to acquire his services.

In many ways, it was the prodigal son’s return.

Drouin was born roughly 60 miles north of Montreal, played all his minor hockey in Quebec and starred in the QMJHL prior to being selected third overall by Tampa at the ’13 draft. There were tumultuous times with the Bolts but, by the end, Drouin emerged a budding star.

The argument can be made that, among the NHL’s elite French-Canadian skaters, he’s in the top five. Patrice Bergeron and Kris Letang would grapple for the No. 1 and 2 spots, while Drouin jockeys with Jonathan Huberdeau and Derick Brassard for spots three-through-five.

So landing him was a big get.

And just hours after the trade was announced, Habs GM Marc Bergevin made the ballyhooed homecoming complete. Drouin was signed to a six-year, $33 million extension, one that carries a $5.5 million cap hit. It was signed straight out of his entry-level contract. No bridge, no arbitration, nothing.

Now comes the pressure.

Drouin will be counted on to breathe life into an erratic Montreal offense. The club finished middle of the pack in goals scored last season — 2.72 per game, 15th in the NHL. The Habs weren’t much better in shots on goal per game (30.0, 17th in the league). The power play finished 13th.

And that was with Alex Radulov in the lineup.

The veteran Russian forward, now in Dallas, was an integral part of Montreal’s attack. He finished second to captain Max Pacioretty in points, and led the team in assists. Drouin seems capable of replacing that lost offense — he enjoyed a breakout campaign last year, with 21 goals and 53 points — but it’s not just the production on the minds of Habs fans.

It’s where that production will come from.

Drouin played both wing and center in Tampa Bay and, in case you haven’t heard, the center position is a bit of an issue in Montreal. There’s a undeniable opportunity for Drouin to grab the 1C spot, but is he capable of snaring it?

“Hard to tell,” Bergevin said at the draft in Chicago. “To play center in this league, it’s very demanding. You have to play a 200-foot game, and it’s hard. So for me to put this kid in that position right now, it wouldn’t be fair for him.

“I love the acquisition and we paid a high price. I love Jonathan Drouin and I think he’s going to help our team a lot. Claude [Julien] will see at the end of the day where he fits best. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I’m not sure right now.”

Drouin has elite playmaking ability, and his competition for prime minutes down the middle — Alex Galchenyuk, Phillip Danault, Tomas Plekanec — isn’t overwhelming. That said, he struggled in the faceoff circle last season and may not be the prototypical two-way, defensively responsible center Julien prefers (and has experience with, from his days in Boston with the aforementioned Bergeron).

But those are the kind of expectations Drouin faces now. The Habs paid a big price to get him, shelled out big bucks to sign him and the message was clear:

He needs to be an impact guy.

If he is, he’ll be a hero in Montreal.

If not….

Under Pressure: Jaroslav Halak

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This post is a part of Islanders day at PHT…

No goaltender went through a season that could be more accurately called a roller coaster than Jaroslav Halak.

The veteran netminder entered the campaign immediately following a superb showing in the World Cup, but he struggled in the first half of the season to the point where he cleared waivers and was then sent to the minors on Dec. 31. Rather than fade away though, he got a second wind in the AHL. That led to him being called up on March 23 and shining in the finals weeks of the campaign.

So after all that, what’s next for Halak? Will he excel like he did towards the end of the season, struggle like he did at the beginning, or end up being wildly inconsistent yet again?

He’s down to the final season of his four-year, $18 million deal and Thomas Greiss has emerged as a strong alternative for the starting gig with the Islanders. Greiss is entering the first season of a three-year, $10 million deal, so he is more firmly established as part of the Islanders’ plan than Halak, but Greiss’ contract isn’t so expensive or long-term that the Islanders can’t re-sign Halak too if the situation calls for it. Especially if Halak were to step up and become a major part of guiding the Islanders back into the postseason after their disappointing 2016-17 showing.

What the presence of Greiss does though is give Halak little leeway in order to reestablish himself as that type of goaltender. If Halak even has a bad October, he might find himself set more clearly in the backup role beyond that.

Perhaps the Islanders are looking to Greiss as their future though and have little interest in Halak beyond this season. Maybe they would prefer a younger and/or cheaper pairing with Greiss once given the flexibility that Halak’s contract expiring affords them. Even in that scenario, this would still be a critical season for Halak as he’ll need a strong showing in order for him to find a gig elsewhere. After all, it wasn’t long ago that the entire league said they didn’t want his contract and while he’s bounced back since then, he still needs to prove this season that he’s worth a new deal.

The goaltender market is always a tough one, especially for those seeking a starting job, but for a great netminder that’s a nonissue. Halak has played at that level at various points of his career. He needs more than ever to be that goaltender again.

Gallant thinks Golden Knights can ‘win and compete consistently’ during inaugural season

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What can we expect from the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18? No one really knows what they’ll look like once they hit the ice because they’ve never played together before.

Of course, the expectation is that they’ll be bad, which is fair considering the track record expansion teams have in pro sports. But are they gonna be “Colorado bad” or will they be able to hold their own more often than not?

“I knew we were going to have a pretty decent team, but the team was better than I thought,” head coach Gerard Gallant said, per NHL.com. “I thought we got better top-end players than I thought we’d get.

“So I think we did a real good job building our team. Is it good enough to win and compete consistently? I think it is.”

Through the expansion draft, Gallant’s team was able to find themselves a quality number one goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury and a relatively young backup in Calvin Pickard.

After parting ways with defensemen like Alexei Emelin and Marc Methot, the Golden Knights are left with solid options like Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, Colin Miller, and veterans like Jason Garrison, Luca Sbisa and Brayden McNabb. That’s a decent group for an expansion side.

Up front is where things get a little more complicated. They signed Russian free agent Vadim Shipachyov and picked James Neal, David Perron and Reilly Smith during the expansion draft, but they’re also light on scoring depth.

“There’s going to be issues,” added the Golden Knights head coach. “Some nights we’re going to have trouble scoring goals. You look at our roster, there’s a lot of good players. Are there any superstars there?”

It’ll be interesting to see how Vegas’ first year in the NHL will unfold under Gallant and general manager George McPhee’s watch.

Poll: Will John Tavares re-sign with the Islanders?

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This post is part of Islanders Day on PHT…

Is this going to be the last year we see John Tavares in a New York Islanders uniform?

That will likely be the question that surrounds the Islanders as long as Tavares is around and he hasn’t signed a long-term extension with the only club he’s ever played for.

The Tampa Bay Lightning went through this a couple of years ago with Steven Stamkos. In the end, the sniper opted to remain with the club that drafted him. Will Tavares do the same thing? Only time will tell. But what happens if Tavares doesn’t sign before the trade deadline?

The Bolts had to chose between keeping Stamkos for a playoff push and risk losing him for nothing, or trading him for a few assets to make sure they got something to show for him. The situation worked out well for Lightning GM Steve Yzerman.

Players like Tavares rarely make it to free agency, which is why it could be tempting for him to wait until July 1st to see what he could fetch on the open market.

The 26-year-old holds all the cards. He’s already said that he’s in no hurry to sign a new contract extension.

“For me, there’s really no rush,” Tavares told Newsday last week. “I’m trying to determine things, let the process run its course, keep the lines of communication open, keep it all internal and it’s been good so far . . . In terms of signing a new contract, there’s a lot that goes into it. To really dive into all the details, get into all the conversations I’ve had with Garth [Snow], the team and Doug [Weight], I don’t think it’s productive to the situation and the negotiating. I prefer to keep it all internal, that’s the best way to keep it all open, honest and healthy.”

Since he joined the Islanders as an 18-year-old in 2009-10, he hasn’t exactly been surrounded by incredible talent. Sure, New York has had some quality players on their roster, but they’ve always leaned heavily on Tavares.

This summer, they traded away inconsistent forward Ryan Strome to the Oilers for proven scorer Jordan Eberle, who could see some time on Tavares’ wing. Will it be enough to convince him to stay?

The biggest difference between the Tavares/Stamkos situation, is that Stamkos expected to Lightning to be very competitive over the next few years (yes, they missed the playoffs this year, but the future still looks bright). Can the Islanders superstar expect the same from his organization?

Many have already speculated that he could decide to sign with his hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even though the Leafs have plenty of talented forwards on their roster, they could still benefit from having a guy like no. 91 around.

Will he stay or will he go? Let us know what you think by voting in the poll below. Feel free to leave your opinion in the comments section.

It’s New York Islanders day at PHT

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Understatement 1: the 2016-17 season was rough for the New York Islanders.

Understatement 2: John Tavares‘ future is a pretty big deal, to Islanders and hockey fans alike.

Many of the worries surrounding the second understatement stem from the first one; last season was rough, to the point that people are worried that Tavares’ confidence might be shaking in the Isles.

Of course, it’s not just about the 2016-17 season.

After all, they’ve only won one playoff series (eliminating the Panthers in 2016) since 1992-93. If Tavares is growing impatient with the Islanders’ process, then 2017-18 stands as potentially integral in keeping him around. Islanders fans cringe at such talk, but there’s no sense pretending that isn’t an issue on Isles day.

Ouch. Sorry.

The Islanders are sticking with Doug Weight as head coach after a largely successful interim run.

As far as changes go, GM Garth Snow traded Ryan Strome for Jordan Eberle, a player Tavares has some history and chemistry with. That was a good way to entice Tavares … but trading away Travis Hamonic might not have been the most endearing move. At least since the Islanders didn’t land, say, Matt Duchene for their troubles.

There’s always the chance that a Duchene deal – or some other upgrade – could still be in the works, but as is, this off-season feels more like a lateral move for the Islanders. The draft picks they got for Hamonic probably don’t mean much for Tavares, after all.

Islanders day will explore many facets of the team on Monday. Some might not even revolve around that Tavares fellow.