Why Drouin-Sergachev deal isn’t as lopsided as it appears

Montreal Canadiens' Jonathan Drouin will face his former team in the Tampa Bay Lightning for the first time since being traded for Mikhail Sergachev.

There’s a bigger picture to examine when it comes to breaking down the trade that sent defenceman Mikhail Sergachev from the Montreal Canadiens to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for forward Jonathan Drouin this past June.

Barring the obvious—that evaluating a trade involving two young assets just months after they were dealt for one another is premature—the raw numbers don’t tell the full story. They rarely do.

We know what the numbers say about this deal. The 19-year-old Sergachev has the 22-year-old Drouin over a barrel in nearly every relevant statistical category, leading in goals (eight to five), in assists (15-13), in power-play points (10-7) and plus-minus (plus-12 vs. minus-15). This on its own slants the deal heavily in Tampa’s favour.

But ignoring all of the context makes for a superficial evaluation. And the context makes this swap more even than most people would consider it to be at this point.

You can’t just dismiss that Sergachev joined what was arguably the most talented roster in the NHL and that Drouin was added to a roster that ranks about as highly in talent as it does in the actual standings (25th overall). Surely, that’s a key factor in why things appear as lopsided as they do ahead of the Canadiens’ first game against the Lightning on Thursday.

Another is how well insulated Sergachev is on the Tampa blue line, with a perennial Norris candidate in Victor Hedman leading the charge and stalwart Anton Stralman serving as a regular defence partner. He’s also surrounded by the NHL’s first- and fifth-leading scorers (Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos) and two others who rank in the top-50 (Brayden Point and Vladislav Namestnikov).

It would be hard to suggest Drouin is well insulated when the Canadiens’ leading scorers, Alex Galchenyuk and Phillip Danault, rank 139th and 141st, respectively, with 21 points each. And it would be even harder to suggest he’s well surrounded when you consider he’s spent less than a dozen shifts at even-strength with leading goal scorer Brendan Gallagher, who has four more goals than anyone else on the team.

Sergachev is also well-protected by Lightning coach Jon Cooper.

Tyler Dellow, who goes in depth on the numbers for The Athletic, tracks how sheltered a defenceman is by what percentage of his ice-time is spent against the opposition’s star players. In an email exchange with Sportsnet on Thursday, Dellow detailed that out of the eight defencemen who have been used by the Lightning this season only Slater Koekkoek has played a smaller percentage of his shifts against star players than Sergachev.

Not to say that Canadiens coach Claude Julien hasn’t done his part to help Drouin, too. Julien has started Drouin in the offensive zone for 58.5 per cent of his even-strength shifts and kept him largely out of the heavy matchups at the Bell Centre.

But Drouin has hardly been sheltered in comparison to Sergachev, and he’s averaged nearly a minute more per game in ice-time than any other centre on the Canadiens this season (Drouin is at 17:41, Tomas Plekanec at 16:37 and Danault at 16:58).

None of that changes the fact Sergachev has played about as well as anyone could’ve imagined he would after being traded to the Lightning, and that Drouin has admittedly fallen short of lofty expectations most had when he was slotted in as Montreal’s top centre.

"I haven’t really shown who I am yet," Drouin said to reporters in Tampa on Thursday morning. "Some flashes here and there, but it’s not the real Jonathan."

He’s aware it’ll take time—and a lot of repetition—to boost his meagre 41.2 faceoff percentage, and he knows he needs to step up offensively after only recording a single assist in his last seven games since returning from a lower-body injury.

But Drouin has already provided ample evidence he will become the player he wants to be—the player the Canadiens expected when they traded for him—as time moves along.

Aside from what our eyes tell us—that he’s oozing talent, that he plays with great pace and great creativity, and that he has the potential to make everyone around him better—it’s not a coincidence that the players he’s played most of his shifts with this season rank in the top-five on the Canadiens in high-danger scoring chances per game, according to naturalstattrick.com.

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The optics on the trade would look considerably different if winger Artturi Lehkonen, who ranked No. 1 on the team in high-danger scoring chances before missing 16 games with a lower-body injury, had scored more than two goals through the first 18 games next to Drouin. Paul Byron was set up plenty by Drouin but managed just three of his 10 goals on the season during that stretch.

And Max Pacioretty, who has five 30-goal seasons to his name, started with just two goals in his first 10 games next to Drouin. He is stuck on eight, mired in one of the longest slumps of his career—with just one in his last 19 games—and has drawn a blank on his best scoring chances of the season since being reunited on a line with Drouin four games ago.

There’s little Drouin can do on Thursday to shift the trade in his favour. Sergachev has a healthy lead, and his rested, league-leading Lightning is a heavy favourite against a Canadiens team that’s lost two in a row and come to town on the sixth leg of a seven-game road trip and on the second half of a back-to-back.

But it’ll be a long time before we can reasonably pick a clear winner of the deal, and things aren’t as lopsided as the raw numbers currently suggest.

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