MONTREAL–Perhaps the most important thing to come out of this season for Jonathan Drouin is that he finally sees what everyone else sees, that he recognizes what he needs to do in order to access that otherworldly talent of his on a more consistent basis.
That he has looked inward for the solution and not pointed his fingers elsewhere for having failed to come through with anything more than three points when his team needed him most, when they were fighting tooth and nail to get into the post-season over the final 18 games. Because nothing is more crucial than what happens next for this player.
Drouin is, by general consensus, the most gifted player on this Montreal Canadiens team. A 24-year-old who possesses the speed and skill this new era of NHL hockey rewards.
The speed and skill that helped him score 18 goals and match his career high in points (53) this season, those assets that can break any game wide open for his team. But unlocking all of that more regularly to ensure a brighter future in Montreal—and in this league for that matter—is tied to whether or not he can evolve into a more complete player, because if he can’t contribute in other areas, he won’t be given the ice-time to produce more.
It is the lesson he unquestionably learned over the final stretch of the season, when he was at times the least-used forward on coach Claude Julien’s bench, when he hoped to get another opportunity to rekindle his chemistry with leading scorer Max Domi but was instead relegated to a secondary role with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia.
“You can go back where you’re playing eight minutes … it’s hard to be Jonathan Drouin,” he said just prior to his exit meeting with Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin on Tuesday. “I’m not blaming the coaching staff, I’m not blaming anyone for playing me those minutes. There’s a reason why. Me and Claude talked about it where if I was playing that well, if I was playing that great, you would be playing those 17 minutes, 18 minutes. There’s a reason why some nights it was 12 and that’s on me as well. That’s not only on the coaching staff. That’s on me to step up my game and be better.”
You have to think saying as much is an important step in Drouin’s evolution. Bergevin certainly believes it is.
“Today was a very good meeting with Jo,” the GM said after holding meetings with all his players. “First of all, from when Jo came two years ago to where he is today, he took many steps forward. The fact that Jo realized and admits that he could have done better — it’s not that he didn’t try, it’s not like he doesn’t care. The stretch where he had the toughest time getting points, it was at the wrong time. It was not (to) his liking. But the fact that he sits and he realized that, ‘You know what? It’s on me. It’s up to me.’ It makes me believe that, next year, he’ll take another step forward.”
Drouin has plenty of examples on this Canadiens team to draw from in order to do so. He needn’t look further than his good friend, Domi, who was traded to Montreal after 222 games played mostly below his potential with the Arizona Coyotes.
The former 12th overall pick in 2013 scored 28 goals (or just eight less than he did in his first three years combined) and shattered career highs in assists (44) and points (72), and he did it by applying himself in every area of the ice and not just in the square footage around the opposing net. Domi worked his heart out every night, and that’s a big part of the reason the discussion about the team never centred on the fact that he failed to register a point in 32 of the games.
Ditto for Brendan Gallagher, the leading goal scorer for the Canadiens who avoided even a hint of criticism for not finding the back of the net in any of his final seven games. Or Phillip Danault, the tenacious, two-way centre who barely heard a peep about going 21 games from Feb.9-Mar. 24 without a goal.
And then there’s Artturi Lehkonen. A player who produced just one goal in 34 games but one who also dislodged Drouin from a line with Domi and Andrew Shaw because of everything else he did to be a player Bergevin described at Tuesday’s press conference as a very important one.
As Drouin watched Lehkonen battle for every puck, as he watched him backcheck with authority and forecheck with tenacity, he had a better sense of what was missing from his own game.
“That line was playing pretty well when Lehky went up there,” Drouin said. “Again, that goes with the maturity part where I’m able to understand.”
Now it’s about the application process for Drouin. A player who was chosen third overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2013. A player who still feels very much entrenched in the growth process, one who knows he can be much better.
“I’m still a young player,” he said. “Some people take longer than expected and some people just go right out of the gate and they fly. When I was 19, that’s what I was hoping—to just come in and keep going at what I was doing in junior. It didn’t happen, but you look at how many cases where how many guys just come in this league and burn the league down and just start really well.
“I’ve looked at some players that it’s taken more time. I’m not discouraged about it. It’s something you work at it, something you look at why, for some reasons why. But again, I’m still young but I’ve had some experience under my belt a little bit where this has helped me this year with some of these experiences in the past. I’m happy to live them.”