In a Twitter poll conducted two weeks ago, Habs fans were asked who should start the season as the club’s number-one center and more than 80 per cent chose Alex Galchenyuk.
Far back in the poll, in which more than 1000 people responded, was the team’s most noteworthy offseason acquisition Jonathan Drouin, who has spent a large majority of his NHL career on the wing, but is certainly no stranger to lining up at center having played there for much of his final junior season, and for several NHL scouts the logical choice to be tried in the first-center slot on a team that has a glaring need at the position.
“Why do you guys keep forgetting that Drouin has played center before?” asked one senior NHL scout recalled his dominance cetnering Nikolaj Ehlers as an 18-year-old in Halifax. “It’s too early to tell, but I think he’s going to be given a chance.
“I always thought when he was in Halifax that he should have been the one playing center while (Nathan) MacKinnon was on the wing when I watched them. He’s a better stickhandler and playmaker than MacKinnon…he creates more offence and distributes the puck.”
He is definitely not alone in that assessment among the talent evaluators who kept a close eye on him for three seasons in Halifax and saw him collect 79 assists in just 46 games playing center in his final season.
“I think he can play center in Montreal,” added another scout who saw him more than 50 times in junior. “He likes to roam, hold onto the puck…find the open man. I think he likes the wing because he can concentrate on offence, and he probably has to play more consistently to be a center, but he has the talent to do it.”
The major concern with Drouin will be whether he can handle the faceoff duties and defensive responsibilities that come with playing under a defence-first coach like Claude Julien, but as one scout pointed out, could he be any worse in his own zone than Galchenyuk? It’s not that Galchenyuk didn’t skate back hard on most occasions, he simply had problems reading the play and properly covering the right opponent when the situation called for it. His final junior season Drouin had a 53.29 FO%, so it’s not like he’s incapable of winning draws at the NHL level either given his strong base and quick reflexes.
“It’s just a question of whether (Drouin) can play well enough defensively…can he play in his own end well enough to appease the coaching staff?” noted one scout. “I assume that’s what they’re going to try him at center, but I don’t know for sure. If they decide to do it…they will work on his zone coverage throughout training camp…and who better to work on his defence than Kirk Muller?”
Not everyone is on board with Drouin playing center, of course. It’s thought by some that being asked to take on a more defensive role will hurt him offensively and that Drouin simply isn’t going to pay enough attention to defence to satisfy his demanding head coach. One western conference NHL scout who scouted in the Q when Drouin played in Halifax was asked if he thinks Drouin can play center in Montreal and his answer was succinct – “No.”
Drouin certainly does not lack hockey sense. The biggest concern with him defensively is whether he will put in the required effort, especially on the backcheck, and not have a tendency to hang back waiting for the puck to be turned back the other way.
In his favour is the fact that Montreal had a center who played several years with Max Pacioretty in David Desharnais that liked to let his wingers do the defensive spade work. He was often the last forward back defensively on his line. Pacioretty with his speed and tenacity often covered for Desharnais on the backcheck, and there’s no reason why he could not also do the same for Drouin if they end up being a top-line tandem and it takes Drouin some time to adjust to his added responsibilities in the middle.
In training sessions last week Drouin was witnessed scrimmaging at center with Pacioretty, and from all reports the two were already finding chemistry, with Drouin setting up Pacioretty for his wicked one-timers on numerous occasions.
The other logical linemate for Drouin on the right side if he is indeed asked to center the top line could be Artturi Lehknonen, a young Finn who by the end of last season was really coming into his own, and arguably one of the Habs’ top two forwards in the team’s last 20 games.
Lehkonen earned two head coach’s trust last season because he quickly showed that he had the sense and work ethic to excel at both ends of the ice, showing a knack for making the right decisions in his own zone and not harming the team when he was on the ice.
Lehkonen and Pacioretty may be ideal linemates for Drouin given that they are both sound defensively, and in the offensive zone apart from Drouin, are two of the club’s three-best shooters along with Galchenyuk.
Drouin has superior vision and passing skills…if he ends up feeding Pacioretty for 82 games it’s not inconceivable to expect the Habs captain to crack the 40-goal mark for the first time in his career considering that he has never had a center who comes close to Drouin in terms of skill level, yet is one of the top-five goal scorers in the NHL in the past five seasons.
Lehkonen would also benefit from having a scoring chance creator like Drouin feeding him open one-timers, and he’s a good bet to at least crack the 25-goal plateau as a sophomore if given that luxury.
Drouin has the puck carrying skills to thrive at the center position if he can handle the intangibles that come with such an important assignment.
“He is going to be the guy in Montreal,” said one NHL scout who in 2013 had Drouin ranked ahead of Nathan MacKinnon because he thought he had greater offensive upside. “They will run the powerplay through him…and he’ll love playing there I think. A great trade for Montreal..they get a French-Canadian to excite the fanbase, and he’ll be motivated. He can be like Sergachev in that he can be too casual at times, but I think playing in Montreal will help with that.”
Bergevin is banking on that. He and many others saw how he accepted the challenge of being the offence creator in Halifax for three seasons…how when he was asked to step up he more than rose to the occasion, amassing an incredible total of more than 100 playoff points in those three seasons, a figure rarely achieved at the junior level, and certainly not in modern times.
He will be given that opportunity in Montreal – there will be no sulking because of a lack of ice time, no motivation lapses playing for the NHL’s most storied franchise that he idolized as a hometown boy.
The people may have spoken in the first-line center poll and are expecting Galchenyuk to get another shot as the top center, but indications among NHL personnel suggest that it may well be Drouin who is given that opportunity. The Habs traded their top prospect for Drouin…so the hope is that he will be “the answer”…and “who will be the first line center?” is the most prevalent question.