MONTREAL — As I was poring over the 10 minutes or so of raw footage the Montreal Canadiens shared from the first day of Phase 2 action at their Brossard training facility, a variation of the same image kept popping up on my screen.
What I was looking at was frame after frame of Jonathan Drouin smiling wide, seemingly enjoying every second he was on the ice.
And maybe he was just happy to be out of his house for more than an hour. Maybe he was just soaking in a sense of normalcy that has been beyond elusive since the pandemic arrested life as we knew it. Or, perhaps, it was just the pure joy of playing hockey again — even if it was just for a loose shootaround with a couple of teammates and a couple of farmhands.
But whatever it was brought me back to November, when Drouin was in the process of taking a massive step forward in his career and revelling in it in a way we hadn’t quite seen since he was traded to the Canadiens from the Tampa Bay Lightning in the summer of 2017. And what I kept thinking Tuesday as I watched slow-motion images of Drouin passing, shooting and smiling, was that this is the player everyone in Montreal wants to see when hockey eventually returns. A happy player, whose skill helps lift the Canadiens to greater heights. The player who stormed out of the gates with two goals and four assists in his first five games. The player who hounded the puck all over the ice and owned it in the offensive zone to help Montreal establish an 11-5-3 record through November 15th.
Drouin appears to be on the same wavelength.
“I felt way more comfortable in the first couple of months of the season than I had ever been in Montreal,” the Ste. Agathe, Que., native said on a conference call with Canadiens reporters Wednesday. “Just playing hockey, it didn’t matter. The team was playing well, I was playing well and I just felt good about my game at the time. And I felt confident going against any team and in any building … At least I saw I can be an impact player every night if I show up and play the game I’m supposed to play, and that was a good time for me.
“I just want to grab what I did in that first (part of the) season and bring it to whenever hockey starts again. In those three months (away from hockey) I looked at some of those games and the reason I was playing well, the reason was I was skating. You look at those things and you want to bring those things back when hockey comes around again. But, definitely, I want to go back to that same pace and that same feeling I had.”
It sure beats the feeling Drouin had in February and March, when it was impossible for him to be the player we saw at the beginning of the season.
Surgery to repair a torn wrist tendon had sidelined him for three months, and he struggled with the lingering pain of that surgery — and suffered an ankle sprain — upon his return. His timing was largely affected, his confidence waned with each passing day and he was unable to contribute anything in the way of offence in the eight games he played before NHL season was paused. The 25-year-old didn’t have to tell anyone there was no joy to be taken from not being able to help the Canadiens climb out of the hole and back into the playoff race during that time — it was written all over his face.
What was also plain to see, prior to that, in January, was that Drouin pushed to adhere to the 10-12 week recovery timeline that was publicly advanced after his surgery, but he couldn’t quite overcome his discomfort within that timeframe.
Yet, with the Canadiens floundering in the standings, the pressure for Drouin to not only return, but to act as some kind of saviour mounted. And even if he won’t admit to it, he succumbed to that pressure and jumped back into the action before he was fully prepared.
It’s fair to say that pressure suffocated him to a degree, and the pain he was in stifled the joy we saw from him in the early part of the season.
“I had two things nagging,” Drouin said Wednesday. “One thing isn’t so bad, but when you start having one or two things — and after you miss three months — timing just really wasn’t good for me.
“Missing three months of hockey, I’ve said it many times: you can practice and you can do many things in the gym, but when you miss games it takes a couple to get going again. And my first game back I got injured in a different place, so I wasn’t able to rediscover my beat from the beginning of the season.”
That’s what made the look on Drouin’s face at Tuesday’s informal session resonate so much.
This little practice appeared like a rebirth of sorts for him. It was the first time he was back on the ice since the season was paused on March 11, and he said it was the first time he looked and felt more like himself since taking the seemingly innocuous fall in the third period of his team’s 5-2 win over the Washington Capitals that caused his wrist injury on Nov. 15.
“I didn’t receive treatment during quarantine, but rest really did my ankle and my wrist some good,” Drouin said. “This pandemic is certainly no fun, but at least it gave me a break to help heal my ankle and my wrist. Now both are rehabilitated and I can just show up to the arena and play hockey without having to go through treatment. So, it’s good news for me…”
“I could shoot the puck normally,” he added.
And Drouin could smile and enjoy his time on the ice.
Though that may seem like something small and insignificant right now, it could play large in August, if and when games resume and the Canadiens undertake a three-to-five game play-in series against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that’s vastly superior in nearly every category.
So long as Drouin feels good, he might be able to continue on the trend he’s established throughout his hockey career of elevating his game when it matters most. He finished his junior career with the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads having amassed 102 points in 50 playoff games, he scored a total of 13 points in 13 games with Team Canada at the 2013 and 2014 world junior championships, and he put up 14 points in 17 playoff games during Tampa’s 2016 run to the Eastern Conference finals.
“For me, my game just goes up in playoff hockey,” Drouin said. “As a kid, it was hockey tournaments and all those things. When playoff hockey comes around, there’s a different feeling. And I’m not the only one that gets that.
“I’m not nervous to go through this qualifying round. I’m very excited if we do, and usually, that’s something I strive for and I play well in those moments.”