Montreal Canadiens

Canadiens hope Jonathan Drouin can fill center void

(Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

The Montreal Canadiens welcomed one of the bigger additions in the Eastern Conference this summer when they acquired Jonathan Drouin from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for 2016 first-round pick Mikhail Sergachev, then signing him to a long-term contract.

It’s a huge move because Drouin, still only 22 years old, is a massively talented forward who has All-Star potential. Since the start of the 2015-16 playoffs, when he shined for the Lightning, and then throughout the entire 2016-17 season, he really started to show that potential and has developed into a top-line forward. He gives the Canadiens another impact player up front to build around alongside Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk.

What’s interesting about Drouin’s arrival in Montreal is that the Canadiens are facing another big decision similar to the one they have been facing with Galchenyuk in recent years — where are they going to play him?

Drouin has spent the majority of his NHL career playing on the wing, with only limited looks at center. But this past week, Canadiens coach Claude Julien said he is willing to give Drouin an opportunity to play center, and that he deserves the chance to make a case for it.

The benefit of Drouin getting an opportunity down the middle and seizing it is obvious. The Canadiens need a No. 1 center. It has probably been their most glaring weakness, and the lack of an elite playmaker at that spot has been one of the biggest factors holding them back from becoming a serious threat to win a Stanley Cup. Tomas Plekanec has been a good player for a lot of years, but he is not a top-line center on a Stanley Cup team. He pretty much had to be this past season.

The problem the Canadiens were facing is that it is next to impossible to find that sort of player without selecting one high in the draft.

Established top-line centers rarely get traded, and they are almost never available in free agency because teams do everything they can to keep them when they get them.

You usually either need to have a top pick in the draft or have an awful lot of luck on your side to get one.

The Canadiens, at this point, don’t really have a true No. 1 center, but Drouin and Galchenyuk at least give them some options and potential. If the Canadiens were willing to commit to playing both forwards at center — and be patient with them — they could have a pretty dynamic one-two punch down the middle, assuming everything went according to plan. In that sense, it is absolutely worth it for the Canadiens to give them a shot to take over those spots.

They need impact players down the middle, and Drouin and Galchenyuk are clearly the only skaters on the roster who have anything close to the sort of ability to give them that.

The key, though, will be the Canadiens’ ability to be patient and accept that sometimes there will be some mistakes. It can be a steep learning curve, especially for young players who do not have a ton of experience at the position. The Canadiens can’t abandon the experiment as soon as something goes wrong. That always seemed to be an issue under the previous coaching staff when it came to Galchenyuk playing down the middle.

With Drouin, the Canadiens are dealing with a player who played a lot of center during his last season in junior (and had a lot of success) and hasn’t really gotten a ton of looks there since. We don’t really know if he has the ability to do it at the NHL level. The talent is certainly there, especially when it comes to his speed, ability to fly all over the ice and his playmaking. But putting it all together in game situations and being a top-line player is going to take some time.

But given what the Canadiens are working with down the middle and how important that position is going to be, it is absolutely worth it for them to see if he — and Galchenyuk — can handle it on a full-time basis.

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