It would be difficult to call Jonathan Drouin a draft year surprise. After all, he was selected second only to Nathan MacKinnon in the 2011 QMJHL Entry Draft for a reason. He then went on to serve notice of his abilities with a strong rookie debut, including a magical playoff run alongside MacKinnon and the rest of the Halifax Mooseheads. He followed up that performance by helping Team Canada win their fifth consecutive gold medal at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament this summer.
So if anyone thinks Drouin has come out of nowhere, they simply were not paying attention to begin with.
With that said, who would have expected that a mere 12 months after he was torching midget AAA goalies as a member of the Lac St-Louis Lions, Drouin would be burning his way through the QMJHL with similar ease? Who would have thought that after being "that guy" picked immediately after the highly touted MacKinnon, Drouin would not only be linemates with the young phenom, but would also be quickly proving that the gap between #1 and #2 isn't as wide as previously thought? Who would have predicted that the duo would be making serious noise to be selected first and second overall again, but this time at the NHL Draft and possibly not even with MacKinnon being the first player picked?
Drouin has been nothing short of incredible so far this season, but as mentioned, his real story begins over a year ago when he was drafted second overall by the Mooseheads in the 2011 QMJHL Entry Draft.
With Drouin opting to stay with his midget AAA team in Lac St-Louis to start the 2011-12 QMJHL season, the Mooseheads, in the meantime, had acquired first overall selection Nathan MacKinnon, a hometown player who was already being hailed as the latest 'Next One'. Hardly challenged at the midget AAA level, with 22 goals and 53 points in 22 games, Drouin opted to join the Mooseheads shortly before Christmas. Despite tallying two assists in his first QMJHL game and displaying his obvious talents, Drouin didn't immediately dominate the QMJHL as Central Scouting's Kim Houston explains.
"He came in basically at the end of the first half there, around Christmas break and he just kind of looked like he was going through the motions a lot of nights, but really I think he was just processing and then when the playoffs started, he was a different player. That's what I really noticed, he stepped up his game," says Houston.
Mooseheads assistant coach Jim Midgley agrees.
"[Drouin] came here at Christmas and he's just gotten better every single day and that's what's fun to watch, to watch a player. He was outstanding when he came here last year and obviously his playoffs speak for themselves."
After finishing the season with a solid seven goals and 29 points in 33 games, Drouin really came into his own in the post-season. In a magical playoff run, including a second round comeback from a 3-0 series deficit against the Quebec Remparts, Drouin scored nine goals and had 26 points in 17 games as the young Mooseheads squad made it all the way to the third round. In particular, it was his goal in the Game 7 overtime that clinched the comeback against Quebec.
That experience led into a busy summer where he played for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. His five assists in five games helped pace the Canadians to their fifth straight gold medal performance.
Drouin has continued to improve in his second season in the QMJHL with expectations for both he and the rest of the Mooseheads being that much higher. Even an early season injury couldn't slow him down. In 20 games so far this season, Drouin has 15 goals and 41 points, leading all QMJHL players in points-per-game, less than a year after he was averaging over two points-per-game at the midget AAA level.
Last month, Drouin also appeared in the second Canada/Russia Subway Super Series match after missing the first with injury. In the game, he scored once and finished with four points in Team QMJHL's 5-2 win over the Russians.
A talented offensive star, Houston refers to Drouin as 'The Wizard' and goes on to say, "He's got incredible puck skills and he's got an incredible sense of where everybody's at. He's a special player in terms of his puck skills and he plays so well with his feet too, foot-to-stick, and he just knows to leverage, with a low center of gravity and uses the energy from the opponent to spin and jive and to come out of the corners. He's just so difficult to stop. You saw that move the other night (see video below) on #44 Lamarche in front of the net; it just kind of makes you think, wow! He's pretty special."
Midgley, on the other hand, praises Drouin's commitment to the game, explaining, "He wants to be a hockey player which is fun and exciting. If you ask him any stat or anything like that, he knows what's going on around the league and he just loves the game and that's always great to work with."
Despite all this praise, both Houston and Midgley point out similar aspects of his game that Drouin will need to continue to improve on.
"I don't think he has explosive speed, I'm sure he wants to work on his overall game, he grew an inch this summer, he got stronger, I'm sure he wants to work on his shot, his speed, his overall game. He's still a young 17-year-old kid that's learning the game, too, so he's doing the things that it takes to be a player and hat's off to him," says Midgley
"To play at the NHL level, you're going to be physically a lot stronger," Houston explains. "But he'll mature, his body will mature and I think he understands that he has to be in top condition in order to play at that level. I don't think he's going to be a guy that's going to be 6'1”, 6'2” and I think he understands that and he'll work really hard on his conditioning. Speed too, I think that will come too as he develops more leg power and that will come with the training as well. In terms of all other aspects of his game, and of course, every player at the junior level, where he's relied on so heavily offensively, he'll have to learn to play in his own end of the ice as well and be very self sufficient defensively."
Houston continues by saying, "Being a small guy, when your feet are always moving, it's tough to get a read on and he's so good at changing speed. He's not fast, he's not straight-ahead fast, but he's so good at changing speeds, just subtly. I think that really throws defenders off and really puts the defensemen on their heels when he's coming at them, because they don't know what he's going to do, he's just so good with the puck and he'll stop, start, boom, delay, he can put the puck back to the point, he can put the puck down low, he can spin off of guys, he's got so many things he can do and you can see that he just backs guys up. He gives himself more room on the ice."
In Central Scouting's initial rankings, the NHL's scouting arm has Nathan MacKinnon listed as the top draft eligible player from the QMJHL and Drouin coming in second, but Houston admits that the gap between the two is very slim.
"I think it's very close,” opined Houston. “I think maybe the difference might only be MacKinnon physically. If Drouin didn't have that injury, who knows, he might be first. When he came back, the first game back from the injury, I think he had four points that night and it looked like he hadn't missed a game. I don't think there's a big gap there, I think it's pretty tight and who knows what will happen over the rest of the year. But for me, Nate's got that physical side, he's a little bigger and can handle the corners better, but Drouin's smart enough that he knows you have to catch him first"
In MacKinnon and Drouin, the Mooseheads have two of the top players in the QMJHL playing on a line together. And, despite what any rankings say, the duo is on equal footing when it comes to who benefits the most from the chemistry. In particular, Houston points to the effect that Drouin's on-ice vision and awareness has brought to Halifax's offensive attack.
"With his presence, I think he's certainly helped MacKinnon's game,” said Houston. “I think MacKinnon all of the sudden on the give-and-go's, now he's got somebody to give the puck to and somebody that he can work with. And with Drouin, it's almost instinctive, he always knows where MacKinnon's going to be and he knows what Nathan can do with the puck in terms of his shooting skills and he'll get him the puck and that's the beauty of it. They've had [Stefan] Fournier on that line, they’ve had [Martin] Frk on that line, I think maybe even I could play on that line and maybe score a goal. I think he's got very good instincts and I think that's what makes him good with Nathan; he knows where Nate's going to be. I mean, they both have good instincts, but he's got just that tremendous sixth sense where he knows where everybody's coming and who's late and who's gone down low and where to put the puck at all times, he always knows where the open man is."
Although MacKinnon continues to be viewed as the favorite to be drafted first overall, and players like Seth Jones in the WHL, Aleksander Barkov from Finland and Sean Monahan in the OHL also are considered part of that conversation, Drouin has now forced his way into the discussion of top eligible players for the 2013 NHL Draft.
Follow Kevin Forbes on Twitter via @kforbesy