The Montreal Canadiens have a second chance to prove themselves this season, and one player in particular, who has faced heavy scrutiny since his arrival in Montreal, will get to prove his mettle in a playoff-style format: Jonathan Drouin. However, is he capable of being a difference-maker against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins?
The Canadiens are in the play-in round, or playoffs if you prefer, but that’s just semantics. Either way, the winner of this best-of-five series will move on to the round of 16 while the loser’s season is over.
Drouin Fit for the Plan
A healthy Drouin returning to the lineup add talent into the middle six will add some depth that had been missing for most of the season. His style of play matches exactly with what Bergevin has been building, a team built to use speed and possession to control games.
The Habs boast one of the top five-on-five (5v5) possession lineups in the NHL with the second-overall Corsi For percentage (CF%) at 54.3% and they rank second in expected goals for (xGF%) at 54.01%. Despite those numbers, they only finished 13th overall in the NHL in goals for (GF). Drouin’s addition to the lineup after missing 44 games would likely have helped improve the possession numbers.
Even though general manager Marc Bergevin was a seller at the deadline, the saving grace in this play-in scenario is the benefit of having the team’s youth, participating and gaining experience in playoff hockey. This includes Drouin specifically as he has only 23 games of playoff experience, all with Tampa Bay. His last exposure to playoff hockey was in 2016 when he helped that team reach the Eastern Conference Finals with 14 points in 17 games. The test will be for him to prove he can provide that level of play again.
Drouin the X Factor?
Before his injury, Drouin had 7 goals and 15 points in 17 games. Prior to losing him to injury on 19 November 2019, the Canadiens scored at an average rate of 3.53 goals per game (avg GPG) and sat seventh overall in scoring, two goals back of the second place Toronto Maple Leafs. In the following 38 games without Drouin, the Habs offence suffered due to the lack of depth, dropping to only 2.86 avg GPG, ranking 14th in the NHL.
The long layoff should have allowed Drouin to recuperate and his expected return to the lineup for the play-in round comes at an opportune time. Drouin has a reputation for starting the season on a hot streak. The layoff will be almost equal in the length to a regular offseason, which could allow him to have the mindset of starting a new season.
Drouin should enter this series with the motivation to prove himself. He’s had his mixed reviews since his arrival in Montreal as he faces constant comparisons to Mikhail Sergachev and his successes with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He also has sections of the fanbase upset he hasn’t reached the impact a third overall pick (he was selected third overall by Tampa Bay in 2013) should have provided.
The expectations when he arrived in Montreal was for him to become a top line player, that has not materialized. He has also not had the opportunity to test himself in a playoff game as a member of the Habs. If he were to provide a performance like the one he game with the Lightning in 2016, many of those negative reviews would fade into the background.
The pressure isn’t on Drouin to face top opposition. The top line of Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher will be playing over 20 minutes a night and shadowing any line that has Crosby at center. The Habs’ 5v5 play is among the best in the NHL and it’s because of this line who provide a CF% of 66%, keeping the play in the offensive zone. As a bonus, the line also provides scoring — accounting for 38% of all Canadiens goals this season.
This will allow Drouin to slide into a secondary role, for which he is ideally suited. Less pressure to produce regularly against top opposition defenders, should push him to the top of his game where he controls the puck and generates offence.
Drouin could slot into a second-line role Max Domi, with his most regular linemate from the start of the season. Domi however, may not be cleared to play. He is diabetic (Type-1) which could pose too high a risk in the event that someone tests positive for COVID-19 during the sequestered playoffs.
If the Drouin-Domi duo can be reunited, adding one of the Habs’ future top centers, Nick Suzuki could support rekindling the chemistry Domi and Drouin shared at the start of the season while adding Suzuki’s responsible defensive play, and who could also generate offensive plays for two highly creative players.
The power play (PP) is where Drouin’s talent could truly make a difference in a short series. His impact on the power play (PP) was also felt as the Habs had a 20.3% success rate placing them 15th in the NHL. During Drouin’s absence, it dropped to 19.4% and fell to 20th in the NHL in that 38 game span. One percent may not seem significant, yet in a short series one PP goal at an opportune time could shift the momentum of an entire series.
The Canadiens had serious issues with the power play this season, which finished 23rd overall with a woeful 17.7% success rate. Granted, on the road, they were in the top 10 at 24%, and the Canadiens will be on the road for this entire series as it will be played in a hub city.
Drouin back on the half boards in the one-three-one system would give him the time and space to use his playmaking skills. Drouin’s speed in transition and stickhandling also helps to create space at the blue line, allowing him to enter the zone under control, making it possible for his linemates to enter and set up. Montreal was missing this skill as the power play suffered.
Finally, if Drouin’s play returns to the levels seen at the start of the season, paired with a passable PP and the same 5v5 possession numbers, the Canadiens can be the Cinderella story of the play-in round. If not, then fans can look forward to the NHL Draft just as they were before the pandemic shut down the season.