MONTREAL— You take the bad with the good. Especially when the good overwhelmingly outweighs the bad.
That’s a smart policy to follow for the Montreal Canadiens, as it pertains to two of their youngest and most talented players — Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin. Without them, they’d have had no chance of sneaking out of Sunday’s matinee against the Edmonton Oilers with two points in the bank. Without them, they’d not be anywhere near where they currently are in the Eastern Conference standings.
That would be in third place in the Atlantic Division thanks to three points taken in back-to-back games against the New Jersey Devils and Oilers this weekend. And in the 4-3 overtime win against Edmonton, it was the 23-year-old Domi who scored Montreal’s second goal and assisted on its third, and the 23-year-old Drouin who assisted on the first and scored the winner.
It’s what happened in between that could drive a coach like Claude Julien up a wall. A coach like any other at the highest level of hockey; one who demands a disciplined, engaged game in all three zones.
He’s a coach that shakes his head when he sees a speedy, talented player like Drouin play a largely pedestrian game away from the puck. And he certainly doesn’t like it when Domi takes a needless, if not selfish, penalty 190 feet from his own net.
“When other players get in their heads, or they get frustrated or whatever, not only do they hurt themselves but they hurt our team,” said Julien of a play late in the second period that saw Domi wrap both his arms around Leon Draisaitl and yank him down to the ice after the Oilers had already scored two power-play goals and tallied another within two seconds of a Montreal penalty expiring.
“I think it’s important throughout a 60-minute game (that) you can’t let those things become a distraction,” Julien added. “Sometimes it’s because guys are intense. They care. (But) it’s about not crossing that line.”
Domi’s career in Montreal started by doing exactly that — throwing a bare-knuckled punch at unsuspecting Florida Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad to earn a five-game pre-season suspension. And since then, there hasn’t been a post-whistle scrum he’s been involved in where he hasn’t dropped his gloves looking for fight.
He’s a feisty, edgy player who takes down numbers for retributive purposes; a guy who antagonizes the opposition with a constant you-know-what-eating grin; a guy who plays with his heart on his sleeve and daggers up it.
“We’ll work with him,” said Julien. But they’ll do so without trying to neuter the emotion Domi brings to the ice. The emotion that’s seen him score 17 goals and 47 points to lead the team in scoring.
“I think that’s what makes Domes a special player,” said Canadiens captain Shea Weber. “That emotion, that passion for the game — it’s huge. When he’s playing on that line and not over the edge and costing the team, I think you see how valuable he is and how much of a difference he can make every game.”
It’s give-and-take with Drouin, too.
When you watch him scramble to get open in his own zone and then charge up the ice at full speed before slashing to the slot and ripping a wrist shot into the top corner of the net to win the game in overtime; when you see him dominate a power play and make the kind of play he made to set up Weber for the game’s first goal at the 2:23 mark of the first period, you can’t help but wonder where that hustle is in the corners, on the forecheck, in front of the opposing goaltender, and on the backcheck.
Not that Drouin doesn’t show it at times. He wouldn’t have 15 goals and 39 points and be tied for second in team scoring if he didn’t.
It just isn’t there all the time.
There’s still hope for Drouin to find consistency in the parts of the game he leaves you wanting in. And there’s still time for Domi to find a way to better channel his frustration. But with both of them closing on 300 games played at the NHL level — Drouin’s at 294 and Domi’s at 275 — you don’t expect they’re going to show you something drastically different than what they have to this point.
That means accepting some of their deficiencies and continuing to throw them over the boards in the hopes they’ll do more good than harm.
Domi’s served 63 mostly-avoidable penalty minutes this season, but he’s also been Montreal’s most consistent offensive player —registering points in 36 of 53 games and never going more than three in a row without hitting the scoresheet. And for all his meandering away from the puck — and the one-on-one battles — Drouin’s done what he’s been paid to do in helping the Canadiens to a 21-4-4 record when he scores at least a point.
On the whole, Montreal is 29-18-6 thanks in large part to both of them.
“Obviously we rely on those guys night in, night out to be good,” said assistant captain Brendan Gallagher. “When we’re having success, they’re a big part of it. They came to play today, it was nice. Obviously, we’re going to need a lot more of that going forward.”
The Canadiens will take the other stuff that comes with that, so long as it remains the smaller part of the ensemble.