MONTREAL — From Sunday’s Red-White scrimmage to Monday’s 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was a love-in for Jonathan Drouin at the Bell Centre. One that left him saying, “I’m really happy to be back.”
“I’m happy, I feel like myself,” Drouin continued. “It’s fun to be playing hockey.”
It couldn’t have been a sharper contrast from what it looked like for Drouin last April, when he took to warmup in Calgary for a game against the Flames and then stepped off the ice for an indefinite leave of absence.
It was only revealed at the beginning of last week, months after Drouin missed the Canadiens’ remaining 12 games and their run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the final, that he had been suffering from anxiety and insomnia for years and that it had begun to affect him too much to continue playing.
Joy was an afterthought for Drouin at that time, but it’s front of mind right now. The 7,500 fans in attendance Sunday cheered the Ste. Agathe, Que., native at every opportunity and made him feel it.
“It warmed my heart,” Drouin said. “There might have even been a little tear, I don’t know if you saw it, but it was really cool to come back and get an ovation like that.”
There were more of them on Monday, as Drouin carried over chemistry with new linemates Josh Anderson and Christian Dvorak to notch two assists.
The three of them combined for three goals and nine points in the win over the Maple Leafs.
It was only a pre-season game, but it was chicken soup for Drouin’s soul. This whole camp has been that so far; an ideal start to regain his footing in the Canadiens’ room and in the NHL.
Lines mostly set?
Interesting revelation from Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme, who was asked if Drouin-Dvorak-Anderson was a line he had in mind or one borne of necessity after Mike Hoffman was injured prior to leaving for Montreal and Brendan Gallagher was absent from the start of camp due to “family reasons.”
“We had a good idea of what we wanted to do, but there are certain key points or positions where we have battles and need to see what happens,” Ducharme said. “But I’d say we were pretty sure in our winger duos. We’ll see, but we made our lines hoping we could start this way and work on it for three weeks during training camp.
"So, to see Dvorak’s line have a good game was a positive for us.”
That’s one less thing to figure out, with Cole Caufield -- upon his return from an upper-body injury in about a week’s time -- completing a line with Tyler Toffoli and Nick Suzuki.
Here’s another: Gallagher taking Rafael Harvey-Pinard’s place on a line with Jake Evans and Joel Armia, who appears to have taken confidence from his excellent playoffs — and the four-year, $13.6-million contract he signed thereafter — into this camp.
Sure, the Canadiens’ heart-and-soul winger was in Caufield’s place at Tuesday’s practice, but it’s an easy conclusion to come by that he’ll complete the Evans-Armia duo by the time camp reaches its final phase and the start of the regular season comes into view.
Which brings me to this: boy, did I ever get hammered by the fans for initially placing Hoffman, a five-time 25-goal scorer who’s topped out at 36, on the team’s fourth line to start when I put out this notebook a couple of weeks ago, but I might end up being right. I’ll get hammered now for my suggestions for the other lines, too, but my thinking was that Hoffman would be on the top unit of the power play and rove around the lineup at five-on-five, where he’ll be deployed for what would amount to fourth-line minutes.
I argued you’d see the 31-year-old move up when a goal — or a spark on a given line — is needed, and that he could be the go-to finisher and offensive driver on a fourth line that would start most of its shifts in the offensive zone.
I don’t know that it would’ve been Ducharme’s plan out of the gate, with Hoffman signing a three-year, $13.5-million deal with the Canadiens to likely play a more prominent role, but it might prove to be the one he opts for if Armia carries momentum into the games that matter. Hoffman could be out another three weeks with a lower-body injury, and that obviously puts him behind the eight ball to start, as I wrote about last week, but his absence might have given Ducharme a better sense of how he can achieve the optimal balance to get scoring and defensive reliability out of all four of his lines.
One thing Ducharme said, after we wrapped our one-hour conversation last week, was that we’d likely see a lot of movement on his lines throughout the season. And one thing that feels clear, just looking at the paper composition, is that there are a number of combinations he can come up with that can work.
Dvorak sprinting out of the gate
Scoring a power-play goal and notching three assists is a fine way to make your debut as a Montreal Canadien, but there’s much more to Dvorak’s game.
There’s even more to it than Ducharme assumed there was after diving deep on the player who was traded to the Canadiens from the Arizona Coyotes for two draft picks following Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s departure for Carolina on a $6.1-million offer sheet at the beginning of September.
“I knew he was a complete, solid hockey player,” the coach said. “I see little things (that make me realize) he’s even smarter than I thought.
“As a person, he’s a really focused guy. He’s having fun quietly with the guys, but he comes in and he’s pretty business. I think that’s one of the reason he’s reacting that way on the ice is because he pays attention to every little thing that a hockey player needs to be paying attention to be successful, and there’s a reason he’s playing that way — his focus, the way he handles himself. I think he’s going to become, down the road, like a really quiet leader. Just the way he plays will influence a lot of his teammates.”
Dvorak plays the right way, and that will do much to account for the loss of Phillip Danault to the Los Angeles Kings in free agency. We knew that already.
Personally, I didn’t realize how fast he was. I didn’t think that was a hallmark of his game, but he appeared to be perfectly in step with two of the team’s biggest burners on Monday.
Kaiden Guhle standing out
Nothing like jumping over the boards 26 times and playing a team-leading 23:44 in your first-ever NHL exhibition game to get your feet wet, eh?
Kaiden Guhle’s debut was a near-perfect dive off the highest platform; an impressive performance that certainly caught his coach’s attention.
“Composure,” said Ducharme. “He’s not showing any sign of being nervous or anything else and things like that. He’s pretty calm, confident. I think he’s confident in the right way. He knows that he’s got things to learn, but he’s a great kid.
“A lot of people that had him on their team talk about (him) being maybe captain material. We can see why because of the way he handles himself.”
I mused on Twitter that Guhle, facing a room full of reporters for the first time at the Bell Centre, had ice on his foot and ice in his veins after he calmly answered a series of questions with an freezer bag taped over a battle wound suffered blocking a shot on a second-period penalty kill. Others in the room called him a mini Shea Weber, noting that he was reminiscent of the always-measured Canadiens captain.
I think he left that impression when he deflected recognition of his innate ability to properly read the play and gap up in the neutral zone with confidence — a trait Drouin praised him for, and one he was asked about to try to discover where that comes from.
“It’s the forwards that are tracking back that allows me to step up,” Guhle said, “and they did a great job of that tonight.
“Good team effort.”
Weber would’ve thrown in the word “obviously” a couple of times, but this type of answer was straight out of his book.
Here’s what I thought was most compelling: this was an A-performance from Guhle, and he had to have known it was being received as that by the nature of the questions he was fielding, but his own assessment of it was even-keel.
I snuck in a final question at his avail, a Columbo-style — how many of you are too young to get this reference? — “Just one more thing, Kaiden…How do you think you played today?”
“Solid,” Guhle said. “Simple. Tried to do my best and help the team out. I think it was a solid game. Obviously, there’s some things you can do to improve, but it I thought I was pretty decent. But again, team won, so it makes it a lot better.”
Like Ducharme said, the kid is confident in the right way.