Drouin, Sergachev still searching for consistency two years after trade

Montreal Canadiens centre Jonathan Drouin (92) watches his shot go past Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (88), as Lightning defenceman Mikhail Sergachev (98) looks on. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

MONTREAL — It’s been two years and a few months since Jonathan Drouin and Mikhail Sergachev were traded for each other and both players are still searching for the same thing — consistency.

They’re both off to great starts with their respective teams, both growing into the players they were expected to be, and both still feel they have room to improve.

The 24-year-old Drouin is enthused about the way he’s started the season — establishing habits that could get him to the level most expected he’d be at sooner as the third-overall pick in 2013. He’s jumped out of the gate as the Montreal Canadiens’ leading scorer, with two goals and four assists, but he’s most excited about being able to say that if he had gone scoreless through a couple of Montreal’s five games this year, he’d still be happy about the way he played.

Is Drouin satisfied? Not at all. The Ste. Agathe, Que., native — who had 46 points in his first 55 games before managing only seven over his final 26 last season — has mentioned several times since training camp that he’s had good starts before and if he gets off to another one it will be about proving he can maintain a high level of play throughout the entire season.

Former teammate Victor Hedman, the Norris Trophy-winning assistant captain of the Lightning, says he knew this was the challenge Drouin was taking with him to Montreal when he was traded for Sergachev in June of 2017.

"When you’re young, it’s all about consistency and your habits," Hedman started. "That’s habits in the offensive zone and defensive zone. For Droosy to take that next step and really become the world-class player he has that potential of being you can have two or three good games but it’s really about being consistent.

"You look at the (Sidney) Crosbys and the (Connor) McDavids and they’re world-class players because they do it 82 games a year. Even when they’re not at their best, they still find a way to contribute in different aspects for the game. I think that’s the biggest key for Jonathan and any other player who can be a world-class player."

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Sergachev, 21, certainly qualifies for the same advice. The former ninth-overall pick of the Canadiens has steadily built up his repertoire in two seasons with Tampa. He’s a supremely skilled player, a naturally gifted lefty who can patrol both sides of the blue line, and he’s a player very much still entrenched in the process of becoming complete.

Depending on who you ask, he’s either coming along right on schedule, or he’s a little behind the expected curve.

On Monday, when we asked Sergachev where his game is at — he’s tied with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov in points (six) and is leading the Tampa Bay Lightning in assists (six) — he was anything but content with it.

"Not great," he said. "Not just me. Our whole team hasn’t played the way we were practising and playing in training camp, the way we wanted to play. We’re kind of inconsistent a little bit. Myself, I probably played only two good games and another three games I played pretty bad. It’s inconsistency and effort, too."

Lightning coach Jon Cooper is a little more forgiving in his assessment, noting that outside of breaking into the NHL as a goaltender there is no greater challenge than emerging as a reliable defenceman.

"Sergy’s taken steps every year," Cooper said. "It’s fun to watch the process. You watch an 18-, 19-year-old kid, and you know he struggled in his battles and there was just so much raw talent. But you’re trying to turn them into pros, and we’ve watched Sergy turn into a pro here the last couple of years and it’s been really good."

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Now the challenge for the young Russian is to elevate his game to the point where he can be relied on for more than the 18:20 of ice-time he’s averaging so far this season.

As teammate Alex Killorn puts it, Sergachev will have to find a way to be harder to play against.

"He’s such a skilled player," the 30-year-old winger said. "We see him on the power play and in the offensive zone and he’s able to do things with the puck that not many defencemen in the NHL can do, and I say that honestly. But just being hard to play against… to be able to play a lot of minutes in the NHL, you have to be good defensively if you’re a defenceman, and you have to be hard to play against. You’re going to be relied on to play so many minutes and you’re going to be playing against the best players."

The same logic applies for a forward.

At least part of the reason Drouin has started off on the right foot this season is where he finds himself lined up in Montreal’s pecking order. He’s averaging 16:27 of ice-time per game — most of it spent alongside Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia and away from heavier match-ups teammates Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, Max Domi and Artturi Lehkonen are facing on a nightly basis. Drouin also has a key role on the team’s top power play unit. These are things that have put him in a position to succeed.

The sense is, however, that Drouin is playing a style of game right now that will enable him to thrive in an elevated role.

"I think he’s had to grow as a player both on and off the ice and everything I’ve heard so far is he really has," said Cooper. "He has a wealth of talent and it looks like he’s put it together. Good for him."

Moments like the one Drouin experienced as the second star of a 6-3 Canadiens win over the reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues on Saturday are only going to help him in this process.

Killorn, who was born and raised just outside of Montreal, knows just how important that kind of support is to a homegrown player on the Canadiens.

"It seems like there’s quite a bit of pressure on him," he said. "I think, for him, it’s important to have that moment with the fans because he has that feeling and can build on that and become… if he keeps playing well, he can become a fan-favourite. If he keeps playing well and keeps helping them win games, he can be a really important player for this team and this city."

It’s what the Canadiens hoped for when they traded Sergachev — a player they knew would evolve into a bona fide top-four defenceman — for Drouin.

On Tampa’s end of it, they feel they have a player who’s slowly but surely becoming who they expected he’d be.

"He’s obviously very, very skilled offensively, but I think he’s gotten better defensively as well," said Hedman. "Paying attention to the small details in the game is going to make all the difference for him and I think that’s where he’s improving. He can be out there on the penalty kill, he’s been put out there in D-zone situations and that’s where he’s improving the most. He’s still working on it, but I’m most proud of how he competes and how he strives to become better."

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