MONTREAL – It’s funny how these things go sometimes. When the Montreal Canadiens acquired Jonathan Drouin from the Tampa Bay Lightning 20 months ago, GM Marc Bergevin was vilified for giving up a 6-foot-3, 215-pound defense prospect in Mikhail Sergachev who looks like he’ll play in the league for 15 years.
And things certainly didn’t get any better as Drouin’s and Sergachev’s first seasons with their new teams progressed. In fact, they got worse. A lot worse. Playing sheltered minutes on a powerhouse team, Sergachev jumped out into the early race for the Calder Trophy and, even more unpalatable for the Canadiens, was outscoring Drouin. The player coming back the other way, meanwhile, proved to be another in a conga line of players incapable of filling the Canadiens’ gaping need for a top-line center. Drouin struggled along with his team in what was a miserable season for both.
There might not have been a game that illustrated the stark difference between last year’s version of the Canadiens and this year’s than their convincing 5-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets Thursday night. If you’re looking for a statement game, this was one. And with Drouin leading the way to victory, that trade is tilting back to Montreal in a big way. At the very least, we’re back to a spot where things are far more even and both teams can say they got a good contributor. Drouin had a four-point night for the Canadiens as his linemates Phillip Danault at center and Brendan Gallagher on the right side shut down the Mark Scheifele unit. That gave Drouin seven points in his past two games and 4-7–11 totals in his past six.
“Every trade is going to be like that,” Drouin said of the reaction to the deal. “Every trade is going to be like that. Everybody is going to compare which guy is doing better at the right time. You guys were doing it last year and you’re not doing it much this year. I don’t hear you guys like last year.”
That’s fair. If anyone deserves to crow about redemption, Drouin is right up there among the top candidates. As much as he heard about it last year, he tried to not allow it to bother him. But you have to remember, Drouin is playing in his hometown and he understands what people are saying about him in both Canada’s official languages. And nobody gets to the NHL, not a single player, without having an enormous amount of confidence in his abilities and a desire to prove people wrong when they are doubted. “It’s something you want to do when you get traded,” Drouin said. “Somebody trades for you and trades a good young player and prospect in Sergachev, and for me you want to prove that (Bergevin) has chosen the right guy. Obviously last year I wasn’t happy about that part, but this year it’s going forward and I’m feeling good about my game and I want to show the organization they made the right move.”
As for the Canadiens, they continue to make believers this season, turning a team that was supposed to be a frontrunner in the Jack Hughes Sweepstakes into a playoff contender. Drouin is the kind of player who elevates his game when the stakes are high and he’s proud of that. It turns out he might have a chance to add a chapter to that reputation this season. The Canadiens are eight points in the clear when it comes to landing a playoff spot. With 27 games left, they’re on track to be part of the post-season party. The question that remains is would it be better for them to finish third in the Atlantic Division and almost certainly face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round or take the first wildcard spot, which would draw them against the winner of the Metropolitan Division, which is being led at the moment by the New York Islanders.
Yes, things are markedly different for both the Canadiens and Jonathan Drouin this season. The Canadiens gave up a terrific prospect who will undoubtedly be a solid NHL defender, but he has been a healthy scratch six times this season. He’s only 20 and he has a ton of room to grow. But Drouin is only 23 himself and is still establishing himself as an NHLer.
“When we made that deal, we considered it a hockey deal,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “We knew we gave up something good, but we also knew we were getting something good in return. The guy we gave up was 19 and the guy we got was 22. Either way, we had a young player and we worked with him. Maybe it got tarnished because we had a tough year last year. When you go through a tough year, nobody looks good. They really don’t. And at the same time, he probably didn’t have the kind of players he has to play with this year.”