Marc Begevin

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Is Canadiens’ Drouin worth trading for?

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After two seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, Jonathan Drouin approaches his third in a familiar situation: as a part of trade rumors.

The rumblings revved up on Tuesday, when Elliotte Friedman singled out Drouin in the latest edition of “31 Thoughts” while discussing the Canadiens’ desire to trade away a forward, what with the emergence of prospects such as Nick Suzuki. More smoke gathered on Wednesday, as Sportsnet’s Eric Engels reported that an anonymous Eastern Conference executive texted him that Drouin’s “name is definitely out there.”

It’s gotten to the point that Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin seemingly tried to put out the fire, complete with a fiery zinger:

Nice line, but let’s not kid ourselves: as befitting someone who developed a reputation as a notorious prankster during his playing days, Bergevin seems like a GM who always has something up his sleeve.

Consider Bergevin’s history, too.

On June 23, 2016, Bergevin mostly shot down P.K. Subban trade rumors, saying that a trade wasn’t “realistic.” The blockbuster Subban – Shea Weber trade happened about a week later.

So, it’s clear that, while Bergevin is joking about such rumors, he’s also been willing to throw in a plot twist and trade that player after all.

Maybe the most interesting question isn’t if the Canadiens would trade Drouin, but if they should trade Drouin, and what kind of return would be appropriate.

Let’s begin with the most basic facts. Drouin is 24, and carries a $5.5 million salary cap hit through 2022-23. Remarkably, Drouin’s $5.5M places him as the highest average annual value of any Canadiens forward, edging Tomas Tatar at $4.8M.

In 2018-19, Drouin scored 18 goals and tied a career-high with 53 points. For some, his production worked out well enough to at least calm down the most extremely negative comparisons to Mikhail Sergachev, although time will tell if that was still a lopsided win for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

That’s because Drouin’s overall game leaves quite a bit to be desired.

While he finished with some of his better possession numbers last season, Drouin’s two-way stats were weak relative to his teammates. This RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey provides a useful snapshot of Drouin’s middling impact, at least when you consider the standards of top-six forwards, and how dominant the Canadiens were at even-strength last season:

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien has soured on scorers with defensive weaknesses in the past — including Tyler Seguin, who’s far and away more of a net positive than Drouin — so it’s no surprise that Drouin’s warts might make him expendable. It all brings back memories of Lightning coach Jon Cooper commenting in 2015 that Drouin needed to learn that there’s “more than one net in a rink.” The numbers argue that Drouin still has something to learn, and maybe Julien believes that it’s a lost cause?

Though it’s dangerous to read too much into preseason numbers, Engels points out that Drouin’s ice time has been pretty low at times over the last week, which sometimes foreshadows a move.

Perhaps Bergevin’s trying to be strategic in sarcastically denying trade rumors, then. If teams view the Canadiens as desperate to trade away Drouin, that would make it difficult to extract value for the forward.

Again, that’s where it gets tricky: what might the Canadiens actually want in return? You could make quite the argument for Drouin fetching great value, particularly if you emphasize the positive. He’s still young, his talent can be dazzling, and Drouin has produced some tangible offensive numbers.

The cons list is more troubling each year, though. Yes, 24 is young, and players can grow, but 24 is also a range where it’s clearer that a player probably is what that player is, more or less. Maybe Drouin can figure it out to become less of a drain defensively, yet it’s tough to imagine him getting anything but sardonic Selke Trophy votes in the future.

So maybe it would take a “change of scenery” deal for the third overall pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. Would it make sense for, say, the Canadiens to send Drouin to the Buffalo Sabres for a comparably polarizing player in Rasmus Ristolainen? Might Montreal receive a better return if they merely want to move Drouin for picks, whether that would be to a rebuilding team or a contender wanting to add some oomph on offense?

Watching this all play out could be almost as exciting as witnessing Drouin’s tremendous puck skills, yet could also be almost as perilous as asking Drouin to be a shutdown defender.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.