Canadiens’ Drouin Must Earn Playing Time

Montreal Canadiens general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin announced at his end-of-season presser that winger Jonathan Drouin was eager to get back to playing next season and had started working towards that goal already. Drouin missed the last month of the season and the entirety of the playoffs due to personal reasons. His impetus for leaving the team was never revealed, but it doesn’t matter; he is ready to come back and will need a place to fit in with the logjam of wingers the Canadiens now have.

Drouin’s Break Was for the Best

When Drouin took his leave from the team, he was in a performance slump. He had only scored two goals so far that season, and his point production was slowing down. He was one of the team leaders in assists until that point, but his overall production in the last couple of weeks before he left was waning. Social media was abuzz with comments on trading Drouin or waiving him and putting him on the taxi squad because he only had two goals. The media was also hard on him, which they had been since he became a Canadien. These things can build up for a player and eventually cause them to snap or require some time away.

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

After missing three games with non-Covid issues, the Canadiens announced on April 28th, 2021, that Drouin would be taking a leave of absence from the team and would not explain why. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to speculate why he left the team: with all the negativity surrounding Drouin since he arrived in Montreal, it likely had to do with his mental health. If it was a mental health issue, then the best thing for him was to leave the team and take care of himself first. Doing so would be beneficial in the long run for both the player and the team.

Drouin Returning for Next season

Bergevin was asked about Drouin at the end-of-season presser. Bergevin said he was doing much better and looking forward to getting back on the ice and joining the team for next season. This is a very positive sign, showing that Drouin has taken steps to ensure he is in a better space and able to join the team, putting the past behind him. It also shows that Drouin wants to be in Montreal and find out if he can handle the pressure.

With Drouin healthy and ready to go, this could mean he is looking to prove himself. He has already been working out at the Canadiens’ training facility in Broussard and is working hard to get back into shape for the opening of training camp. Drouin has the skill set to be a high-end performer in the NHL; the issues have been in his head. If he can get past his issues, he can reach his full potential and be the player the fans expected when the team acquired him.

Drouin Needs to Find a Spot in the Top Nine

With Drouin returning and the Canadiens signing Mike Hoffman, Mathieu Perreault, and Cedric Paquette in the offseason, the team now has an abundance of wingers. Perreault and Paquette will not affect the top nine as much, but Hoffman, Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Brendan Gallagher, and Cole Caufield will all be battling for a top-six spot along with Drouin.

Mike Hoffman St. Louis Blues
Montreal Canadiens new forward Mike Hoffman (Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

Drouin plays left wing, along with Hoffman and Toffoli, so it’s easy to say these will be the three battling it out for the two spots in the top six. Drouin showed that he has great chemistry with Canadiens center Nick Suzuki, but then again, so does Toffoli. Hoffman is an annual 30 goal scorer, so it’s hard to imagine he would not be the Canadiens’ top-six; he and Drouin are liabilities defensively but work well when matched with the right linemates. If Drouin can get back to form and be at least a 50 point scorer like he was previously, Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme would have a tough time setting his lineup for the season. The good thing is the top three lines will have excellent wingers, but Drouin must prove he belongs.

Logjam at Wing Could Cause Issues

It will be hard to prioritize who plays and who sits with all the wingers the Canadiens have. Artturi Lehkonen, Joel Armia and Paul Byron are also wingers for the Canadiens and need a spot to play. Byron will be out of the lineup until Christmas with a hip injury, but the other two will be ready to start the season. This means the Canadiens will have 10 wingers for eight spots. Paquette could be the fourth line center, which leaves only one extra winger, but still: who sits and who plays?

Joel Armia Montreal Canadiens
Joel Armia, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With Armia having a $3.4 million AAV and being the Canadiens’ best penalty killer, now that Phil Danault signed with the Los Angeles Kings, I would be hard-pressed to see him as the 13th forward. Money doesn’t always mean more playing time, but teams don’t want almost $4 million sitting in the stands. Drouin makes around $5.5 million, and that would be a hard pill to swallow as well if he is the one sitting in the press box. Perrault is probably the best choice to be the extra forward, only because Lehkonen provides solid defence. Once Byron returns in December, the Canadiens will have bigger issues with cap space and roster size, something that Bergevin will need to take care of, preferably in the offseason and not waiting until he has no choice.

Drouin Could Be Traded by Christmas

With Byron due back from injury at Christmas, the Canadiens will have to clear cap space to make room for him. There are a couple of ways they could do this. They could put a player like Byron, Perreault, or Lehkonen on waivers and send them to the Laval Rocket at the risk of another team claiming them, or they could also trade and send one of their wingers to another team for a veteran center or picks and prospects.

Paul Byron Montreal Canadiens
Paul Byron, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

One of the wingers they could trade is Drouin. If he does return and plays well, he could be a great asset in acquiring a good veteran center, puck-moving defenceman, or a solid prospect. The Canadiens could use the time Byron is injured to see how Drouin is on his return. If he’s lights out and having his best season, they could move someone else. If it looks like he will be about the same as he has been in the past, they could look at moving him. If he struggles out of the gate and never catches on, they could try to move him, but the return would probably be rather low.

Whatever the Canadiens decide to do with Drouin, the important thing is that he is healthy and ready to get back on the ice. Yes, it will produce problems when creating lineups, but it’s a good problem when you have lots of depth and three lines with solid scoring on each of them. If Drouin creates a problem, then it’s up to the GM to fix it. After all, he is the one that put Drouin in this situation to begin with.