Jonathan Drouin deserves privacy in leave of absence from Canadiens

NHL insider Eric Engels joins Kyle Bukauskas to touch on the news that Jonathan Drouin has left the team for personal reasons, hoping the best for him and his family, and who will have to step up in his absence.

BROSSARD, Que — I’m thinking about Jonathan Drouin right now. I’m thinking about who he is as a person, about who he is as a player, about the severity of what he must be dealing with to make the decision to step away from the game he loves most, and I’m wishing him well.

It’s been hours since it was announced Drouin was being placed on long-term injury reserve because he was taking a leave absence from the Montreal Canadiens for an indeterminate amount of time and I’m sitting here thinking about how he’s asked for privacy and how he deserves it.

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I’m also thinking about my role in reporting the information I have—which is nothing more than what’s been provided by the team—and ensuring I do my job while respecting Drouin’s privacy. In that vein, let’s get to the facts.

Drouin took part in warmup before last Friday’s game between the Calgary Flames and his Canadiens at the Saddledome. It was then announced by the Canadiens he was dealing with a non-Covid related illness and that he couldn’t participate in the game. He was unavailable to play in games Saturday and Monday for the same reason, and the first thing we heard about him since was the tweet the Canadiens put it out before Wednesday’s morning skate.

Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme said that his absence was unrelated to anything that happened in Friday’s warmup. When he was asked if any speculation about Drouin checking himself into the NHL/NHLPA’s substance abuse program can be dismissed—unfortunately, some tweets were flying on this subject, though not from any credible sources or reporters—Ducharme said that could be scratched off the list.

I asked the coach if he was holding out hope Drouin would be back playing hockey with the team at some point this season or in the playoffs—in case that was information that could be provided—and he responded, “The most important thing right now is Jo taking care of what he needs to take care of. When I hear his name this morning, I don’t think about hockey, I think about the person.”

I do, too, of course.

I think about how Drouin’s a generally enthusiastic and fun-loving 26-year-old, about how he has a girlfriend and a family and a life outside of hockey, and I sincerely hope everything is ok.

But I’m also thinking about Drouin the hockey player—the guy who lives and breathes the sport, the guy who loves it so much he spends much of his spare time watching it—and about how this latest hardship is an extension of all the difficult things he’s been through since arriving in Montreal via trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the summer of 2017. He came here saying it was a dream come to play for the Canadiens, the team he grew up cheering for as a kid from Ste. Agathe, Que., and I wonder how much the reality has matched up with what he envisioned.

Drouin’s first season was tumultuous to put it mildly, with the Canadiens converting him from wing to centre and hoping he could fill a decades-long gap at the position. He struggled with that and took a ton of heat because of it.

In Year 2, Drouin returned and scored 18 goals and 53 points from the wing. It’s the kind of production expected from a player with a $5.5-million salary, but most of it coming in the first half of the season opened him up to a lot of criticism over the second half.

And last year, Drouin’s best start to an NHL season came to a screeching halt with an innocuous-looking fall causing him to tear a tendon in his wrist. He came back from it a little over three months later, though he was nowhere near 100 per cent, and he did so because the Canadiens were floundering and needed him. But he quickly suffered an ankle sprain and wasn’t able to deliver.

Still, Drouin showed in the playoffs that he could be an important part of this team. And as this season got underway, he was exactly that again.

But the last month appeared exceptionally difficult for Drouin, as he remained stuck on two goals while the team was losing three of every four games it played. It showed in his interactions with the media—and certainly on the ice, where he appeared to really struggle a week ago after he was demoted to the fourth line in a win over the Edmonton Oilers.

Teammate Phillip Danault had dealt with similar things this year. He went 25 games without a goal to start the season and had his contract demands leak out in the midst of his struggle, and he spoke on Wednesday to the reality both he and Drouin have faced as the Canadiens’ only French-speaking Quebecers.

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“Montreal is such high highs and such low lows, without much middle ground,” Danault said. “When everything goes well, you’re super up and very happy. When it’s going less well, it’s harder. Speaking for myself, and probably everyone feels the same, we put so much pressure on ourselves already and it’s amplified in Montreal. We put it on ourselves, but we know how high the expectations are around us also.

“Sometimes it’s hard not to take what’s said about us personally. We all want so badly to perform well and to bring pride to the jersey we wear. It’s an extra pressure we put on ourselves, and sometimes it gets harder on the ice but off the ice, too.”

Nothing about this season has been easy. Danault called it the biggest grind of his career both from a physical and mental standpoint, and he’s one of several players from around the league to have expressed that both in public and in private to me over the last number of weeks.

“It’s part of life; everyone goes through a hard time, too, in different ways,” Danault said. “We’re not complaining about it. We just know it’s a harder year and we’ve got to stick through it and keep pushing for playoffs.”

I know Drouin would like to be doing the same, but he has a personal matter that’s not enabling him to.

As Jake Evans said, he’ll be missed.

“He’s a great teammate, unbelievable player and he loves the game,” said Evans. “He’s a really fun person to be around and that’s about all I can really say now.”

I won’t say anymore, either, other than to repeat I’m wishing Drouin well.

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