It’s pre-season, we know, but Jonathan Drouin has been under the microscope since the Montreal Canadiens opened training camp two weeks ago and what he’s shown since then has been anything but convincing.
Guys like him—NHL players with over 300 games of experience—are usually given a pass at this stage of the game. But the 24-year-old closed out the 2018-19 season with just six points over his last 26 games and four of them came in an 8-1 laugher against the hapless Detroit Red Wings. It was imperative for him to start off 2019-20 on the right foot, for him to change up the optics and gain some confidence before the real games begin.
If the performance Drouin offered in Montreal’s 3-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in their penultimate game of the pre-season is a sign of what’s to come, you have to question if there’s a role for him on the Canadiens this season.
They’re clearly concerned, too. Would Drouin have been dressed for a fourth time in six games if they weren’t? No other locked-into-a-spot veteran on the team has played as much.
The Ste. Agathe, Que., native has been given a couple of looks with Max Domi, one with Phillip Danault, and one with Nick Suzuki, and nothing has looked like a fit so far. Drouin also hasn’t registered a single scoring chance in these games.
On Monday, Drouin played a team-low 11:57 in a 3-0 loss to a Maple Leafs team mostly made up of AHLers. On Wednesday, he played 11:24 at even strength—or just a bit more than short-shifted, likely-AHL-bound players Phil Varone, Dale Weise and Matthew Peca—and he had one harmless shot on net and finished the game with a Corsi for percentage of 21.74.
No Montreal forward fared worse in that department. That’s…not good.
“His name is definitely out there,” texted an Eastern Conference executive during Wednesday night’s game.
How could it not be? The Canadiens gave up a potential top-four defenceman in Mikhail Sergachev to acquire Drouin from the Tampa Bay Lightning in the summer of 2017. They immediately made him their highest-paid forward with a six-year contract that carries an annual cap hit of $5.5 million. And after two mostly-disappointing seasons, with Drouin posting 99 points and a minus-36 rating over 158 games, patience has to be wearing thin if it hasn’t run out completely.
Fair to say the Canadiens would be selling low at this point. So much so that they might just be forced to hang on and pray that Drouin flips this thing upside down in a hurry. He’s such a talented player, a former third-overall pick who still has to be considered as a player with upside. A player who wants to make it work in Montreal.
But if things keep trending in the same direction, you really have to wonder if management will view the scenario of trading him as an addition by subtraction.
Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Trevor Moore (42) moves the puck past Montreal Canadiens centre Nick Suzuki (14) in third period pre-season NHL hockey action. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)
THE BIG TAKEAWAY
Here’s what Suzuki said on Wednesday morning, before the Canadiens left for Toronto:
“I just want to show that I’m able to play against top NHL players. We haven’t played a full lineup like this in any other pre-season game yet. It’s going to be a challenge for sure, but I think everyone’s up for it. Especially me.”
Going up against Auston Matthews and John Tavares for most of his 22 shifts in the game, the 20-year-old didn’t look remotely out of place. And the details in his game offer the greatest evidence he’s ready to start his season with the Canadiens in Carolina on Oct. 3.
Exhibit A: Suzuki gets rocked by Matthews along the boards but still manages to get the puck deep into Maple Leafs territory. He snaps right back up and just a couple of minutes later goes right back at Matthews and gets a shoulder into him in open ice.
Suzuki didn’t back down. It was just another sign that he’s not intimidated.
Exhibit B: With 16 seconds remaining in the second period, with the Canadiens down 2-0 and killing a penalty, Suzuki gets sent out to take the faceoff and is forced to do so on his weak side and against Tavares. He wins it clean, the puck goes down the ice and out of harm’s way.
These are little things, but they are the clincher for a guy who is capable of doing big things.
Suzuki’s offensive creativity is too strong an asset to turn away from. He’s going to be an appealing option for a Canadiens power play trying to vastly improve on its 30th-place finish in the 31-team NHL last season. And his smarts ensure he won’t be a liability without the puck or in the defensive zone, and they make him a viable option on the penalty kill.
He can play centre and he can play wing. The 13th overall pick from 2017 has displayed a versatile game since Day 1 of camp. He doesn’t have any questions left to answer.
• Cale Fleury, the 20-year-old defenceman who’s played in four pre-season games and fared exceptionally well, was given high praise by Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Wednesday morning.
“At the end of the day, he’s either going to be here or I think the way he’s played if he’s not here he’s going to be a call-up (from Montreal’s AHL affiliate in Laval),” said Julien.
Fleury’s case to stay in Montreal got stronger on Wednesday and he wasn’t even dressed for the game. His competition—Mike Reilly and Christian Folin—has been sub-standard through camp and it was reduced to zero in the game against Toronto. Both players finished minus-2 and had a disastrous night in their own end.
• Charles Hudon’s effort on a line with Suzuki and Drouin has to be commended. He’s been given an opportunity to play and earn a spot as the 13th or 14th forward on the Canadiens and he’s put in the work to at least make it a decision. If video review had been available for Wednesday’s game, his goal, which was waived off as a kick-in, would have counted (he clearly got his stick on the puck before it went in the net).
• It was a performance to build on for Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the third-overall pick from 2018 who had an impressive rookie season but a slow start to training camp in his sophomore year. Kotkaniemi had three shots on net, a couple of takeaways, and made a number of nice plays throughout the night.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement, especially in the faceoff circle (he went 0-for-5).
• If it wasn’t for Keith Kinkaid, this game, which featured half of Montreal’s opening night roster against a near fully-loaded Maple Leafs squad, would have ended with a much more lopsided score. It’s a good sign for the Canadiens Kinkaid made 46 saves—several of them quality—after putting up a 4-0, 27-save shutout in his debut last weekend against the Ottawa Senators.
The Canadiens will play the final game of the pre-season when they welcome the Senators to the Bell Centre on Saturday. Julien said on Wednesday morning that he’ll ice a roster that will mostly resemble the one he intends to start in Carolina next Thursday.