BROSSARD, Que. — It’s always the timing of certain decisions that you have to pay close attention to.
That’s what makes Jonathan Drouin’s upcoming reunion with Max Domi particularly interesting. It’s not that both players are finally getting a chance to play together after they were pulled apart a little over halfway through last season as much as it is that it’s happening right now — when the 4-3-2 Montreal Canadiens are having no issue manufacturing offence and while both players are producing at a point-per-game click on separate lines.
With Canadiens coach Claude Julien admitting Wednesday that he feels no particular urgency to change things around, this feels purely like a reward for these guys. And if that’s what it is, it’s a just one.
For Domi, who has scored three goals and added six assists, it was probably overdue for him to get a higher-octane linemate after Artturi Lehkonen, Jordan Weal, Paul Byron and Nick Suzuki combined for just two goals at even strength by his side. And for Drouin, who has three goals and five assists, it’s an affirmation that he’s regained Julien’s full trust, albeit one that comes with a warning the coach issued during his media session that he could “easily go back to the old lines.”
If Julien’s willing to up Drouin’s ice-time and increase his role now, which is something he was unwilling to do down the stretch of last season, it has everything to do with what’s changed in the player.
Consider this nugget from the coach Wednesday and think about what it means:
“What I like seeing in players are players that say to themselves, ‘I’m going to play a strong game because if I do play the right way everyone around me will benefit,’ as opposed to a player who says, ‘Which player can you put with me to make me look better, so that I can have success?’”
He was talking about Drouin, and he wasn’t done.
“What Jonathan has done this year is he’s taken charge of his game, and no matter who he plays with, he plays the same way,” Julien said.
“We all know how much talent he has. He’s a guy with good vision, lots of talent and still quite a bit of speed. These things are starting to fall into place for him and it’s making our team better at the same time.”
That’s a far cry from what he was saying about Drouin in January of last season, when he first decided to move him off Domi’s wing — a decision that remained unchanged (safe for the odd shift here or there) through to the end of the season, which the Ste. Agathe, Que., finished by failing to produce points in 16 of his final 18 games while skating on a line with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia.
“I think Jonathan’s had a good season,” Julien said on Jan. 9.
“But the last little while has been tough for him. I see the same thing everybody else does. Our work is to try to get him going. Part of it is (though) we know he’s got the talent, his compete level and how much he wants to get involved and all that stuff is what really makes a big difference in his game.”
“He’s got to find his compete level and bring it up to match his skill level,” Julien added. “If he does that, he’s going to be a much better player.”
It didn’t happen last season, but it’s clear that what Julien sees right now is a much better player. So he’s giving Drouin a vote of confidence. He’s giving him what he’s earned.
It’s something Drouin isn’t taking for granted. Both he and Domi talked at length Wednesday about the need to be more defensively reliable than they were last season if they’re going to remain together for any extended period of time.
Both know the familiarity they have with each other — after having played close to 600 minutes together at 5-on-5 last season— is going to serve them well on offence. They both expressed their confidence that the scoring should be there after they combined for 34 goals at 5-on-5 from Game 4 to 45 of the 2018-19 campaign.
But they mostly emphasized how important they believe it is to take care of the finer details away from the puck, and you have to think part of the reason Julien is willing to reunite them now is that he’s seen sufficient evidence that both players can execute those consistently.
For Domi, it’s been a steady build from last year to this year in that department. He went from being a minus player over his final two seasons with the Arizona Coyotes to putting up a plus-20 rating in his first season with the Canadiens.
But for Drouin, his attention to detail in his own end and the authority with which he’s playing all over the ice has been a sudden, steady and eye-popping progression through the first nine games of this year.
“I think if you guys watch him really closely, he doesn’t give up on any plays,” said Domi about his new/old linemate.
“Not that he did before, but it’s noticeable. He’s even been more physical. He finishes guys, he’s on the puck with a dog-on-a-bone type of mentality, and it’s fun for a guy like me to watch because that’s how I take pride in playing the game. And you look at a guy like that, with that much skill as Jo, and he’s doing the same thing and you’re like, ‘Wow. He’s really unbelievable right now and he’s doing it all.’ I think he’s taking charge of the puck and the play. I mean, you give him the puck and he’s making plays. I think if you really dissect it, he’s chipped the puck in a few times and sometimes that’s the right play to do, it’s the veteran play to do, and he’s done a really good job with that.”
There’s no way Julien’s missed any of that. That’s why he’s doing this now, despite the fact that the Canadiens are producing the fifth-most goals per game in the league so far.
It’s a move that could have ancillary benefits to it if Byron and Lehkonen find some offence on a new line with Kotkaniemi.
But more than anything, it’s a proactive move that should give the Canadiens a top-six that’s more challenging to play against.
If Domi and Drouin reward their coach’s faith and bring their game together to the next level, we’ll look back at the timing of it and say it was just right.
(Note: Advanced statistics cited in this article came from naturalstattrick.com)