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….