BROSSARD, Que.— When Jonathan Drouin revealed earlier this week he was dealing with anxiety and insomnia that had plagued him for years before it finally forced him to take an indefinite leave of absence from the Montreal Canadiens last season, he said his only goals in returning to play were to get better every day and to just enjoy himself.
Understanding that it’s early in training camp and that I’m not trying to read too deeply into things or magnify little observations, I still think it’s important to share that it’s already obvious Drouin’s in a much better state than when we last saw him on the ice back in April, when he took warmup in Calgary and then stepped off the ice unable to play and unable to continue burying these issues.
He looked fast, engaged, excited, and prepared on Day 1, and on Friday, during the afternoon session, he appeared to be having a great time building chemistry with Christian Dvorak and Josh Anderson, setting up and scoring some highlight-reel goals.
Reporters present weren’t the only ones who saw it. Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme saw it, too, and could sense Drouin was feeling it.
“For him, and we talked about it, if he feels good ... I think he’s in good shape, mentally also,” said Ducharme. “He’s having fun, he’s working, (and) you can see it translates into him being as good as he can be and scoring goals like that and making plays or whatever it is. We want him to carry that all year and to be playing with that mindset and having fun coming here every day.”
So do Drouin’s teammates, and he’s got really good ones, like Anderson, who commended Drouin for not only stepping back from hockey to right himself but also for being willing to share his experience the way he did in the interviews with RDS and TVA earlier this week.
While his comments were lengthy, they’re worth reading in full.
“First of all, I think mental health is a serious topic these days and not a lot of people on the outside know what us as athletes go through on the day to day,” said Anderson. “Everyone says, ‘You guys make a lot of money and whatnot and you should be able to handle it,’ but it’s the other stuff that goes along with it—social media and that. And I’m not saying it’s the social media that’s why Jo took a break.
“I’m proud of him for stepping away and worrying about his health. That’s the most important thing you have to do in a situation like that and he did the right thing. And I was fortunate enough to be one of his close friends last year and just keeping in touch and, every single day, just reaching out to him. And we wouldn’t even talk about hockey; it would just be about life and things like that. So, just to make him feel part of the team still. And then, when I came into Montreal this year about three weeks early, I was trying to look for a place and the first message I got was from Drou and he welcomed me into his house with his girlfriend and he made me stay with him. And the focus that he had, too, just living with him -- he was training in the morning, I would go with him, we would skate in the afternoon, then we would finally get back to the house and he’d say, ‘We’re training again, I’ve got the trainer coming back to the house,’ and I was like, ‘Are we gonna take a break today?’ It was just the focus on him, the mindset of him being absent for a period of time, and it was nonstop at his house. It was good to see the focus back and the drive.
“There’s really nobody that I know that loves hockey more than Drou. It’s amazing to see him back. Full smiles on him, he’s happy. The guys are happy. He just brings that energy to our locker room, so I’m thrilled to have Drou back.”
I was listening to what Anderson started with and thinking about the situation that brought him to Montreal, about how he would certainly know how quickly the pressure can suffocate you.
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) September 24, 2021
Anderson followed up the best season of his career -- a 27-goal, 47-point campaign with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2018-19 -- with his worst one, scoring just one goal in 26 games. He suffered a shoulder injury and played through it, proving incapable of doing the things that previously made him effective. No one knew to what extent he was injured until he made it worse and missed the remainder of the season.
Still, that knowledge didn’t stop many people from openly questioning if Anderson was remotely worth Max Domi and a fourth-round pick in the trade that brought him from Columbus to Montreal, not to mention the seven-year, $38.5-million contract he was handed immediately. He dealt with that doubt for an entire off-season, and even for much of last training camp.
“It’s very difficult, I’m not going to lie,” Anderson said when I asked him about the pressure that comes from external sources (social media) when things aren’t going well or haven’t gone well.
“I’ve been in that situation before with an injury, and you come back early from an injury and nobody really knows what you’re dealing with and you’re just trying to help out your teammates and the pressure’s on you,” he continued. “And obviously the media’s not as big in Columbus, but everyone around the world knows that, ‘You have one goal and you had 27 goals last year, what’s going on?’ And a lot of people don’t know what else is going on in your body—you might be injured, you might have off-ice issues or whatnot.
“So yeah, it’s a struggle sometimes. And that’s why, in Drou’s situation, I was proud of him that he noticed it—what was going on—and he took a break and got healthy.”
Drouin told TVA that teammates and players from all around the league have reached out not only to support him but also to make him realize he’s not alone.
“I’m not the only one who’s lived through stuff like this,” Drouin said. “There were players who have gone through the same and decided to continue. But for me, I had been doing that for years -- deciding to continue despite my anxiety and insomnia -- but the support from the league and the players was really impressive and I couldn’t ask for better after making a decision like that.”
Many players who have been through similar things or are going through them will benefit from Drouin’s courage in speaking out. They’ll say to themselves that if he could do it -- and in a market like Montreal, where every decision is scrutinized so heavily and endlessly -- they can, too.
I think Anderson saying what he said on Friday will help with that process, as well. Players in such situations need to know they’ll be supported, and Anderson’s words -- and the way he treated a teammate in need -- will serve as an example of the type of support players in such situations will receive.
Jake Evans more comfortable and confident
With the departure of Phillip Danault in free agency and the loss of Jesperi Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet, it was obvious the door was wide open for Jake Evans to take on a bigger role at centre this season.
But even if Evans knew that when those things happened during the off-season, and even if he knows people expect him to help fill the void, he said on Friday he’s not approaching training camp any differently than any of the other ones he’s participated in since being drafted 207th overall by the Canadiens in 2014.
“You’re just trying to prove yourself and gain those opportunities,” Evans said. “I’m not looking at it as I need to get this sort of ice time, or I’m not trying to worry about having a spot. If I play my game and work hard, I think everything else will come together.”
A lot has come together for this player since he left Notre Dame after four seasons and began developing in the AHL. Much of it a result of, as Ducharme noted on Friday, Evans always having a strong sense of the type of player he’d be at this level.
“He’s had highs and lows, but he realized what he had to do with his tools to make his way,” the coach said. “I think he made his place by showing good things, and he can advance in those things because he’s a smart young man who understands what he needs to do to be successful.”
Evans, who’s now 25 years old but only 60 games into his NHL career, has matured a great deal over the last two seasons.
He has also found the confidence and comfort level to take his game up a notch -- especially on offence, where he describes himself as a smart player with good vision.
“I don’t really know if I could even put a number on it or anything, but I do feel like as time went on last season I felt more comfortable with the puck -- especially in the offensive zone, or bringing it up and slowing it down a little more,” Evans said. “Sometimes I kinda would grip my stick a little too much or just focus on making that really safe play instead of slowing it down, maybe there’s an open guy and stuff like that. So, I think just with time, you just understand the game more and I do think I can contribute a lot more offensively, and I was a little more as the year went on and towards the end of the year in playoffs.”
“I’m not going to blow you away with my slapshot or anything,” he added. “But I think finding that open lane or that seam pass would help me a lot.”
Now Evans must show it as he auditions for an elevated role in the lineup.
“I like the way he plays,” Ducharme said. “I like the details in his game. I find he’s complete, he has speed, he’s intense, he can play several positions. But we’ve had two practices and I think he’s showing good things, but it’s in games we need to see him.”
After having his contract terminated with the Winnipeg Jets earlier this week, Sami Niku signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Canadiens on Friday.
It’ll guarantee him $475,000 no matter which league he plays in this season, but the terms are $750,000 in the NHL and $425,000 in the AHL.
First thought was that if Niku -- an offensive defenceman who got buried on Winnipeg’s depth chart over the last three seasons -- wasn’t able to claim a spot on the Canadiens blue line out of camp, they could probably sneak him through waivers.
An NHL executive promptly texted: “$425,000 in the AHL? Nobody, except maybe Toronto, will touch that on waivers.”
Still, at 24, Niku’s potential remains largely untapped. And surely, the Canadiens weren’t the only team compelled by a player who became the second rookie in AHL history to be named top defenceman in the league back in 2018.
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff explained on Friday why Niku was never able to quite cement his place in Winnipeg.
“There's a couple of different things along the way that hurt Sami," Cheveldayoff said. “The one training camp where we were expecting big things from him, he got in a car accident on the way to the rink. Getting ready to come back, he pulled his groin.
“Sometimes timing in this game begins to work against you. All along, as a player, you have to do certain things that you need to do in order to push yourself ahead of someone else. This game here, you have to earn your job, you have to win that right to play ahead of some other talented players. And each year, there's a new crop of players that come in. Each year there's a Ville Heinola. Each year there's a (Dylan) Samberg. Some years there's a Nate Schmidt and a Brenden Dillon get added to the organization. Again, it's one of those things where we wish Sami all the best and, hopefully, he can find his way."
Perhaps Niku can do it with the Canadiens, where there’s room for a defenceman who can move the puck well and create offence.
But even if Ducharme conceded that’s a need on his team’s blue line, the coach said this about Chris Wideman, who has the same attributes as Niku and is also auditioning for a role: “We want our defencemen to be defending.”
The coach talked about wanting to have six defencemen he feels comfortable playing against the best players in the world.
Ducharme said he’s seen signs already that Wideman might fit that profile -- even if he’s mostly known for his offence.
“He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s smart,” Ducharme said about the reigning KHL defenceman of the year who had nine goals and 41 points in 59 games with Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo. “So, the way he defends, he’s got a really good stick from what I see right now. Really good stick, he’s moving well, so he’s closing quick. He’s going to close different from (David) Savard, so he’s going to be pushing the guy out and separating the guy from the puck, but he’s really good with his stick like that and taking time and space away like this. I like that, I want to see it in a game.”
He’ll want to see it from Niku, too.
-- Files from Ken Wiebe, who covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet, were used in this story.