Canadiens and the Jonathan Drouin Situation

After missing three games with non-COVID-related issues, on April 28, the Montreal Canadiens placed Jonathan Drouin on the Long Term Injury Reserve (LTIR).  At that point, he had played 44 games, scoring two goals and 23 points, which would be a 44 point pace over a full season.

“The most important thing right now is Jo taking care of what he needs to take care of. When I heard his name this morning, I don’t think hockey, I think about the person.”

-Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme (28 April Press Conference)

Since that time, it has been reported that Drouin will miss the entire season and the playoffs.

Language Debate

In Montreal, there is a unique situation, there’s a demand for the Canadiens to provide the local population with representation on the team. Yet having local players isn’t enough. It must be local-born francophones. In 1909, Ambrose O’Brien, a Renfrew Ontario-based businessman, founded the Habs to be a team to be marketed to the local french speaking population of the city of Montreal. Since that day, it has been producing generations of legendary moments starring Quebec-born talent. 

However, on 11 May 2021, with Drouin and Phillip Danault unavailable to play due to personal reasons and an injury, for the first time in over 111 years of Montreal Canadiens hockey, there were no francophone Quebec born players in the lineup. This caused an uproar among some of the fanbase, and even the political leaders in the area commented.

Jonathan Drouin, Montreal Canadiens
Jonathan Drouin, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The mayor of Montreal weighed in, demanding more francophones saying,

“There are many young and talented Quebecers and Montrealers who aspire to play in the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens must make an extra effort to get them. For their public. For the francophone metropolis of (North) America.”

Valerie Plante (Via twitter)

Even the Premier of Quebec took time during a public Covid briefing to comment saying, 

“I find it unfortunate that there are not more Quebec players with the Canadiens, maybe one day, if we had the(Quebec) Nordiques, there would be some competition to see who can get the most Quebec players.”

– Francois Legault (Phillip Authier,Legault says Habs brass could try harder to get Quebecers on the team, the Montreal Gazette, 11 May 2021)

All this demonstrates that the Canadiens are in a unique situation amongst NHL franchises in having pressure politically and among the fan base to provide roster spots to players based, not just on skill, but on place of birth and language.

Trade for Them

The Canadiens have been drafting local talent, however, it isn’t always a successful method. Does anyone remember 2009 first-round draft pick, Louis Leblanc? His NHL career ended up becoming only 50 NHL games before he retired from hockey to return to Harvard and complete his studies. 

So if the Canadiens have difficulty drafting the high-end skilled Quebecois players, fans would be happy if they trade for them, right? Not necessarily.

Drouin was acquired in a 2017 trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning in return for the then Habs’ top prospect, Mikhail Sergachev. The former 2013 third overall pick arrived in Montreal with much fanfare as the next francophone star, one the Canadiens haven’t had in decades.

Mikhail Sergachev Tampa Bay Lightning
Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Since then, Drouin has become a lightning rod of controversy. At every chance, some would attack his mistakes without providing any praise for good play. Social media became a toxic pool of anger, which can happen when a team or a player doesn’t live up to lofty expectations.

This anger may stem from the fact that Drouin hasn’t been able to become a star player that can be a game-changer for the Canadiens. It may also have to do with the fact that Sergachev has become a quality top-four puck-moving left-handed defenceman for Tampa Bay, something the Canadiens have been in dire need of. Perhaps the fans blame him for general manager Marc Bergevin’s decision to trade for him.

This atmosphere has bred contempt for the young left-winger, and this pervasive anger seen in print and social media may be at the core of his need for personal leave. Even if it isn’t, the pressure on local francophones who play for the Canadiens is ever-present.

While this anger is directed towards Drouin, he has been active in the community by quietly raising money for charity, that work in the community helped to earn him the team’s nomination towards the King Clancy Award.

Each team selects their nominees. He has clearly done enough to earn the nod by his charitable work alone, but is there another motive? This nomination could be a way to show him support, to tell him that the organization cares and is supporting him. 

What to Do Now

There may be only one option left to salvage the young man’s career and mental health: a trade. Getting Drouin out of Montreal to allow him a fresh start away from the added pressure of being the next Guy Lafleur might be the best option. For the Canadiens, however, the trade value won’t be as high as what they paid to acquire him, yet at this point, it is about helping the young man while trying to fill holes in the system.

Colorado Avalanche

The first team that could be an option is the Colorado Avalanche. Reuniting Drouin with his old friend and Halifax Mooseheads teammate Nathan MacKinnon could provide him with a new start with a familiar face. Together, the two forwards terrorized the QMJHL on their way to the 2013 Memorial Cup. The Avalanche could benefit if they rediscover that chemistry.

The Canadiens will need to find a return that can fill a need, namely, a puck-moving defenceman. The first name that would come to people’s minds in Montreal would be Samuel Girard, however, he is too large a piece for the Avalanche and is almost guaranteed to be protected. Also, it would simply move the cultural pressure from Drouin to Girard. Instead, a young player like right-handed defenceman Connor Timmins may be of value. He has size, mobility and is a good two-way defenseman who is starting to become an NHL regular. Once Erik Johnson returns next season, their blueline becomes more difficult for prospects to break into, giving time to younger, quality defenders, such as Justin Barron, to develop. 

Conor Timmins Team Canada Getty
Conor Timmins, Team Canada, 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship, December 26, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)

Another player the Habs could look to try and acquire in a deal with Colorado is Devon Toews. The 27-year-old left-handed puck-moving defender is under contract until 2024 at $4.1 million. The six-foot-one defender boasts excellent mobility that he uses to close gaps to defend, as well as to start the transition game. While he isn’t a physical player, he is capable of handling bigger NHL forwards and physical play as he can play heavy minutes on either side of the blueline. The Expansion draft could help make Toews available, and the Canadiens would need to use some of the plethora of picks at Bergevin’s disposal in any trade package to make a deal plausible.

Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames have just finished a disappointing season. They were expected to compete for a division title and possibly even make a deep run in the playoffs. Instead, they have missed the playoffs altogether and are now rumoured to be looking to shake up the roster, with Sean Monahan’s name-making the rounds.

The Canadiens, even with young centers Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, are in need of veteran help at center, and Monahan is a proven commodity as a first-line center. Calgary could be a great city for Drouin to start fresh. Under a no-nonsense head coach in Darryl Sutter, he could rehabilitate his reputation as a defensively irresponsible player.

Flyers Anthony Stolarz, Flames Sean Monahan
Philadelphia Flyers goalie Anthony Stolarz stops a shot from Calgary Flames’ Sean Monahan (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

Clearly, Drouin alone doesn’t get a big body, a scoring center like Monahan. The Canadiens would need to add picks and prospects, possibly more. High picks, like first-rounders, or prospects such as Poehling, Jordan Harris or more. This scenario might be an expensive one, but the door is open to adding a young center under a contract that would make a significant impact. Bergevin has famously said, “you can’t trade for top centers,” he has worked hard to build the foundation to have the assets to do so now, and he could also provide Drouin with a fresh start, away from the burningly bright Montreal spotlight.

While it is true that Drouin hasn’t lived up to the impact expected of a third overall pick, he has still been a solid NHL player, able to play on the wings in a top-six role. Also, his salary of $5.5 million until 2023 isn’t overpriced. He has been the unfortunate target of anger in Montreal due in part to being a Bergevin acquisition (the GM has had low popularity since the PK Subban trade), partly due to who he was traded for, and in large part because of his place of birth. Drouin’s inability to meet the impossibly high standard set by a vocal group of fans of becoming a francophone superstar for the Canadiens has likely played a role in his current situation. This offseason may be the time to help fill holes on the Habs roster and to help the young winger find a fresh start so that he can continue his career away from what is arguably the brightest spotlight in the hockey world.