Drouin it Right in the Center of Town
August 21, 2017
By Grant McCagg
There is a strong debate right now among Habs fans about whether Jonathan Drouin or Alex Galchenyuk should be the club’s number-one center.
Recrutes put up its second poll on the subject in the past three weeks, and the overwhelming majority are still banking on the Habs starting the season with Galchenyuk centering the top line. With close to 1000 votes cast in the first three hours, more than 60 percent are still choosing Galchenyuk to be the guy, while Drouin sits at 26 percent.
For five years now, since Galchenyuk was selected third-overall by the club in the 2012 NHL draft, the expectation was that the talented forward would be the Habs’ bright future at center.
That was not just the hope of the club… it was also a major reason why head scout Trevor Timmins selected him in the top three despite having only seen him play a handful of games that season because of a severe knee injury suffered in the OHL exhibition season.
In limited viewing that year, Galchenyuk looked like he could handle the defensive responsibilities that come with centering a top line…he worked hard at both ends of the ice and was willing to skate back hard on the backcheck.
By the following season, however, things had changed for the Sarnia Sting coaching staff and head coach Jacques Beaulieu. After a few games at center to start the 2012-13 season, Beaulieu made the decision to switch Galchenyuk to the wing as he was having difficulties with his defensive reads and positioning, and costing the Sting goals and, ultimately, games
That December when he showed up for Team USA’s world junior camp, the American coaching staff had similar concerns after having him at camp in the summer and scouting him in the OHL, and decided to play Alex on the wing as well, so it wasn’t just Beaulieu that saw the issues with his defensive hockey sense at that point.
Fast-forward a couple of weeks when the NHL season finally started due to a lockout, and Galchenyuk began his NHL career playing on left wing; the third set of coaches that season to determine he wasn’t ready to play center….but we were all assured that his day would come; after all…the pressure on the club at the time was enormous to assure fans that there was a future number-one center in the organization; the Habs had not had a bonafide first-line center since the turn of the Millennium.
Three seasons later fans were still waiting. Montreal had gone through a couple of assistant coaches in that period, and yet Galchenyuk was playing the majority of the time on the wing, so the common tendency to simply blame Michel Therrien for holding Galchenyuk back didn’t truly tell the whole story.
When GM Marc Bergevin brought back Kirk Muller last season, most assuredly one of the hopes was that he could drill into Galchenyuk what other Habs’ coaches had failed to do sufficiently in the previous four campaigns – where to go, how to win draws, and who to cover in his own zone.
Galchenyuk started the season on an offensive roll…flirting with a top-ten spot in the scoring race before going down with a knee injury in early December that he would re-aggravate in January, causing him to miss 21 games.
I think what worried Montreal coaches and management alike is that they didn’t see any progression in Galcehenyuk’s defensive play last year; in fact, if anything, it regressed the longer he was at the center position.
Beaulieu had discovered the same thing in Sarnia. Alex has had struggles soaking in all that he was told to do. Center is easily the most complex position to master up front as you don’t simply have to cover the point men; you have to, at various times, cover all five opponents in the defensive zone depending on the situation.
We are not there every day in practice to witness the coaching and how he responded to it, but if Kirk Muller can’t improve your defence, the odds may be pretty high that nobody can, as there are few centermen in the past three decades who were any better in the defensive zone than Muller, and he’s a solid teacher.
It wasn’t just Therrien and Muller who saw the defensive issues either. Chris Nilan, a former NHLer and NHL assistant coach in Boston, brought up Galchenyuk’s defensive issues regularly on his radio show on TSN 690, and when Claude Julien was hired to replace Therrien as the Habs head coach in February, after a few games at center he had also seen enough, and switched him back to the wing.
If this is the case; that Galchenyuk is destined to be an NHL winger, it is not the end of the world. Alex has proven to be a tremendous asset playing on left wing. Just two seasons ago he was a 30-goal scorer after spending the majority of the season on the port side, and for two seasons was considered one of the up-and-coming young wingers in the game. A potential one-two punch on the left side of Pacioretty and Galchenyuk is one that few if any, teams can match.
It’s easy to see why fans still want Galchenyuk to be given an opportunity to center the top line; he was “supposed” to be the answer at center. He’s young, he started last season quite strongly, and the Habs have a glaring need at the position.
It is argued that he was never quite the same after his knee injury, and that is true…but the fact remains that when he recovered, it shouldn’t have affected his defensive zone positioning, reads and decisions. What Muller, Julien, Therrien and a host of other coaches in the past six years have been telling him does not appear to be registering to the satisfaction of what coaches far more qualified than me have requested.
In reading the tea leaves and talking to various NHL scouts since the Habs traded for Jonathan Drouin, I am fully expecting him to be given an opportunity to center Montreal’s first line at the start of the season. Many hockey pundits think the Habs failed to address their most glaring need of finding a number-one center in the offseason and have chastised them endlessly for that…but I’m not so sure that’s what the organization is thinking.
What folks fail to recall is that the last time Galchenyuk played a full season at center he was 16 years old…while Drouin was 18 when he was the first-line center for Halifax. In the past five years Drouin has played as many, if not more, games at center than Galchenyuk, and certainly more in a first-line center role.
After the departure of Nathan MacKinnon, Drouin was the first-line center for Halifax and proceeded to turn Danish rookie Nik Ehlers into a 49-goal scorer as he assisted on 79 goals in just 46 contests. Drouin wasn’t a defensive dynamo that season, but he was more than adequate, and he took a Halifax squad that wasn’t supposed to be very good to a Game 7 versus eventual champions Val D’Or that they lost 3-2.
Drouin had one of the best CHL playoff performance put in by a center in the past couple of decades that season, accumulating an amazing 41 points in just 16 games, so the common perception that Drouin doesn’t have the potential to fill a first-line center role if he can handle the defensive responsibilities is puzzling.
Here is a clip on Drouin’s five-game stint at center in Tampa Bay last season:
It is not a huge sample size, but these highlights demonstrate that Drouin may already have a jump on Galchenyuk when it comes to reading the play in his own zone, when to stay back, who to cover, how to cut off passing lanes, what to do when he has the puck under pressure below the hash marks, and how to win draws.
Drouin has elite vision and stickhandling skills – he can hold onto the puck until the precise moment it should be dished off, and spots teammates and puts the puck on their tape with ease. He is an elite puck distributor and likes to use the whole ice surface. Offensively, his game is ideally suited to play center. Unlike Galchenyuk, he is more of a playmaker than a sniper, and that makes him an ideal candidate in my estimation to play in the middle.
We shall see in training camp, but early reports of him training with Pacioretty and scrimmaging at center make it fairly clear to me that Drouin will be handed an opportunity to play in the middle for the Canadiens, and I think it is a wise decision.
What do they have to lose? If it doesn’t work out Galchenyuk can be given another chance, or last year’s top center in Danault can go back in that role, or the Habs, with their $8.5M in cap space if none of those options prove ideal, can pursue a center as the trade deadline approaches, perhaps John Tavares or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Some argue that it should not happen because Drouin will be under a lot of pressure. Well…he is going to be under pressure being the hometown French-Canadien budding superstar whatever position he plays, and history has shown us that Drouin excels under pressure. He tallied 102 points in 50 playoff games in Halifax, and having seen a number of them in Gatineau and Quebec City…I have not seen a more dominant playoff performer in my 11 years of scouting junior hockey.
Get ready to see Drouin playing center in their first exhibition game exactly one month from now versus New Jersey, and I suspect fans will soon forget that it’s “supposed” to be Galchenyuk in that spot as Drouin dazzles the hometown crowd with his prodigious skills.
Great insight, Grant, and a reasonably convincing case. Looking forward to seeing the results of this experiment. Seems to me that the right wing on this line can be a defensively adept player, a guy like Lekhonen, playing the role that Jere Lehtinen did on the Modano line. Definitely worth a shot.