Canadiens notebook: Drouin-Suzuki-Anderson studies Boston's 'Perfection Line'

Jonathan Drouin discusses how the Montreal Canadiens are approaching this week off from any game action, says it's time to heal up bumps and bruises and make sure you're using your time wisely, and not wasting it.

MONTREAL — There was a play in the third period of last Saturday’s 2-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs that perfectly illustrated the evolution of Jonathan Drouin’s game. It featured his world-class skill — few players could receive a hard pass in the slot and shift through a couple of defenders with dazzling moves while skating at top speed — but it also showed his willingness to work inside the scoring area.

It wasn’t a play that resulted in a goal, but it was a play that created a scoring chance for Josh Anderson, and it showed to what end Drouin has played his role in the success of Montreal’s best line to start the season.

The 25-year-old may only have one goal this season, but he’s got 11 points in 15 games and he’s playing well at both ends of the rink. Drouin has consistently been one of the Canadiens’ best players — just like he was last season before injuring his wrist — and I know I’m not the only one who sees it.

"Jonathan has a good attitude this year, he's in a good state of mind," said Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Tuesday. "I think that Jonathan wants to do well. It's just a matter of time — if he continues doing the little things, the goals will definitely come."

Study sessions for Drouin-Suzuki-Anderson

When we first saw the combination of Drouin, Nick Suzuki and Anderson as a line, it was fairly evident why it had promise.

Julien had the two most skilled forwards on the team continuing with the chemistry they built up in the bubble back in August, and he added a freight train of a player beside them in Anderson — a six-foot-three, 226-pounder who moves like a Shelby Mustang off the line and plays like he’s picking a fight with the biggest, baddest guy in prison. Drouin and Suzuki could start the rush and hit Anderson in full flight, they could use their finesse to leverage Anderson’s grit, and they could set the plays for Anderson to finish.

But there’s so much more to what makes a line successful. Three players have to think the game the same way, they have to build up to a place where all the guesswork is eliminated and they can make plays to each other without hesitation, and that process unfolds off the ice as much as it does on it.

Despite COVID protocols making it more challenging for Drouin, Suzuki and Anderson to spend time together away from the rink, they’re using their time wisely when they are permitted to be together.

One way they’re doing that is by studying some of the other great lines from around the NHL, and we can’t think of a better line for them to look at than Boston’s "Perfection Line" of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak.

"The Bergeron line, they don’t complicate things," Drouin said. "They just strike right away. That’s something we’re working on … trying to turn (the puck) over and strike right away."

"It’s one pass, it’s at the net, there’s one guy driving the net," Drouin added. "That’s something we want to do. We want to create turnovers and make sure we’re capitalizing on them and we do it quick. This game these days, it’s fast, it’s fast, it’s fast and we’ve got to be part of those top lines in the NHL where we’re creating a lot of stuff and we’re hard to play against."

Speaking of hard to play against…

We tuned into Tuesday night’s Laval Rocket game against the Belleville Senators, and one player caught our attention every single time he was on the ice.

In truth, part of the reason we wanted to watch this AHL game was to see how 22-year-old Rafaël Harvey-Pinard would fare in just his third contest as a pro. He opened with an impressive weekend, got himself a goal in his second game, and he was lined up with Ryan Poehling and Michael Frolik on Tuesday.

The thing is, we didn’t have to search for Harvey-Pinard; he was impossible to miss — covering every little detail at both ends of the ice, playing hard on the forecheck and backcheck, physical and engaged and clearly the spark on a line with two far more established players. He’s five-foot-nine and 173 pounds, but he was a menace out there.

Rocket coach Joel Bouchard said after the 4-1 loss that Harvey-Pinard was one of the best players in the game, and that he goes to the hard areas and plays the right way. No one watching would disagree.

I saw some people comparing him to Brendan Gallagher, which is an easy one to come by seeing Harvey-Pinard wearing Gallagher’s No. 11 in a jersey that resembles Montreal’s, but I saw some signs of Steve Begin. Not in terms of skills — Harvey-Pinard has more scoring ability and more touch than Begin ever did — but in terms of will.

There are few players I’ve seen in my lifetime willing to put as much of himself on the line as Begin did consistently throughout an 18-year career that took him from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Val-Dor Foreurs through 560 NHL games (regular season and post-season combined) split between Calgary, Montreal, Dallas, Boston and Nashville. Everywhere he went, the story was the same: a player who just wouldn’t let anything or anyone get in the way of his dream.

Watching Harvey-Pinard with the Q’s Rouyn-Nouranda Huskies and Chicoutimi Sagueneens, seeing him at Canadiens rookie camp last fall, and finally watching him play as a pro has made it abundantly clear he won’t be denied. A lot of things will need to go right for the 2019 seventh-rounder to make — and stick — in the NHL, but put me in the believer category.

How does he get there?

Harvey-Pinard will have to continue to refine his skating technique, no doubt. Not that it’s an impediment as is — it may not look pretty, but he’s explosive and gets to where he needs to be without issue — but it’s an area that he’ll want to focus on.

But the key is for the Jonquiere, Que., native is to continue to play every shift like it could be his last. He could be a smaller Begin-type, an energy player. He could be like Calgary Flames forward Andrew Mangiapane or Tampa Bay Lightning forward Yanni Gourde — players who play that energy role to perfection but also chip in offensively. But as long as he’s himself, I think he’ll be an NHLer.

AHL uncertainty

Bouchard spent a lot of his time talking on Tuesday talking about having to work through a roster of 35 players in this strange, pandemic-stricken season.

After convincing wins over Belleville last weekend, he pointed out that no coach focused purely on winning would’ve swapped out an entire line worth of forwards. But the AHL is a development league and this is a development season, with no Calder Cup being awarded at the end of it.

That will be a tough element to balance for Bouchard as things move along.

Meanwhile, the Rocket are only playing Belleville and Manitoba through February, and nothing has been scheduled beyond that. But Bouchard did mention "36 games this season," which would mean 28 more Rocket games could be played between now and whenever the AHL season concludes.

Some AHL teams in the United States are scheduled for that many, but nothing is certain in Canada just yet. Something to keep an eye on.

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