At 23 years old, with just 309 games of NHL experience under his belt, it’s normal for him to be entrenched in the process of seeking out the type of consistency that defines a good career. It’s normal that he’ll hit a few bumps along that road. If Canadiens fans can recognize that, they’ll have an easier time appreciating the progress he’s made as a player over the last six months.
This is as good a time as any, while Drouin is in the midst of a 13-game goal-drought, for them to remind themselves that he’s played a vital role in the team’s overall success this season. With 17 goals and 33 assists for 50 points through 68 games, Drouin’s the second-leading scorer on the Canadiens, currently three points shy of his career-high (set in 2016) and four points past his disappointing totals over 77 games a year ago.
With his help, the Canadiens have been in a playoff spot for all but 16 days since the beginning of October, and the forward believes he can contribute to them climbing back into one in short order.
Drouin says blocking out the criticism is one key to that.
“If you focus on it, the more you think about it, it’s worse for you,” he said after Monday’s practice. “I’ve had to learn to stop looking at that kind of thing, just be with my family, be with my friends, and focus on the hockey when I come to games and come here to practise. I think we do a pretty good job of [shutting out the noise] and just focusing on us. At this point of the year that’s what we have to do. You look at the standings, we’re not that far away, you have to be able to find that groove.”
The good news is that Drouin’s looking for it. He knows his game isn’t just going to magically appear. He knows what type of work he needs to put in to be successful and he’s trying to draw on the experience he does have in order to find it.
This is a player who accumulated 102 points in 50 playoff games with the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads, a player who had 14 points in 17 playoff games with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2016, a player who’s risen to the occasion when the pressure has ramped up. He’s currently looking backwards to move forwards.
“I’m looking at those games,” said Drouin. “Those are ones you want to go back to and say to yourself, ‘How was I playing in those playoffs and what was I doing that was so different?’ I go back to those playoffs and how I was playing and see I was always around the puck. If it wasn’t on my stick, I was winning a battle to get it. We always talk about winning battles to create a gap and make a play real quick. You have to go back to that and how intensely I played, and now we’re in a battle that’s a playoff-like battle.”
There’s no doubt about that. The Canadiens are currently on the bubble of the Eastern Conference playoff picture and by the time they play the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday, they could be two points back of the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild-card spot. It goes without saying they need Drouin at his best.
Canadiens coach Claude Julien believes he can get there quickly.
“I would say that on this last road trip [1-2-0 through Los Angeles, San Jose and Anaheim], I saw a good effort from a player on both sides of the ice, offensively and defensively. So, a guy who continues to play that way, eventually things will start going his way. I think he’s got the right approach and hopefully he starts producing soon. That would certainly help. But I can’t criticize his effort in the last three games because it’s been there.”
It’s waned at different points of the season, but Julien sees that as part of the process. The coach says a step forward for Drouin would be approaching practices the same way he does games.
“It’s like everything else when we talk to players: It starts in practice,” said Julien. “You practise hard, you build good habits. Those good habits transpire into a game so it becomes second nature instead of maybe not giving it your all in practice and then thinking all of a sudden you can turn the switch on and all of a sudden you’re great again. You want to be consistent? You’ve gotta be consistent every day you step on the ice, and the top players that I’ve coached in the past have always been that way. They enjoy the game the minute they step on the ice whether it’s practice or games. They thrive to be the best, so it becomes second nature and it helps them thrive through the ups and downs of a season.”
Drouin isn’t lacking the motivation to become the type of player Julien’s describing. In his mind, he’s on his way there.
“I’ve made progress and I’m doing everything I can to get better and better,” Drouin said. “Sometimes I grab the puck and I know I’m flying out there; I’ve got my timing and legs. Sometimes the timing’s there but your legs aren’t. You have to find that consistency of every game of having that groove, and I’m still looking to find that in my upcoming years.”
That the Ste. Agathe, Que., native is still on the upswing of his career is something his detractors should keep in mind.