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WHAT THE PUCK: Is this the season Jonathan Drouin finally breaks out?

 The Canadiens’ Jonathan Drouin meets the media at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard on April 9, 2019, after the team missed the NHL playoffs.
The Canadiens’ Jonathan Drouin meets the media at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard on April 9, 2019, after the team missed the NHL playoffs. - John Mahoney

The inconsistent Canadiens forward has real talent. And if the Habs can harness that, he could be a difference-maker for the team.

The pressure is on Jonathan Drouin. It could be argued that the 24-year-old Québécois winger just might be the key to whether or not the Montreal Canadiens thrive or dive down the standings this season.

Of course there are other Habs whose fortunes will have a big impact. Any time netminder Carey Price has a rough season, so does his team. Max Domi, Brendan Gallagher and Jeff Petry all had amazing runs last season and they’ll have to repeat that feat if Montreal is to have a sniff at making the playoffs in spring 2020.

But Drouin has a huge role to play on this Canadiens team and if he disappoints for a third straight season, then it’s going to be a tough year for his club. Just look back to last season. He had a stellar start, running at almost a point per game for the first half of the season.

Then came the horrific collapse in the last third. Drouin got one goal and six assists in the last 26 games of the season and this was right when the Canadiens were fighting for their playoff lives. At season’s end, Montreal was only two points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets, who clinched the final wild-card spot in the East. In other words, so close yet so far.

After that happened, pundits and fans ran through the usual what-ifs. What if the Habs had won those crucial late-season games against the Blue Jackets and the Carolina Hurricanes? What if Antti Niemi hadn’t completely sucked in the second half? But maybe most significant of all, if Drouin — who was heralded as an elite scorer — had put the puck in the back of the net a few more times in those last 26 games, his team likely would’ve made it into the postseason.

He can be a difference-maker. When he’s on his game, he’s one of the most exciting forwards in the league. Remember that overtime goal against the Edmonton Oilers in February?

That’s the kind of magic Drouin can conjure up when he feels like it. But this enigmatic player, picked third overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2013, is the definition of inconsistency. He was inconsistent in Tampa, which is clearly one of the reasons then-GM Steve Yzerman shipped him up to Montreal, and he’s been just as inconsistent ici.

In his first season with the Habs, in 2017-2018, head coach Claude Julien put him at centre, which showed just how desperate the team was down the middle. That experiment was an utter failure and Drouin ended that year with 13 goals and 46 points. This was from the guy who was expected to be our first francophone Quebec scoring star since Pierre Turgeon’s brief stint here during the 1990s.

So what’s the problem? And more importantly, how can the Drouin riddle be solved? I remember hearing RDS analyst Normand Flynn once saying Drouin is who he is. What you see is what you get. In other words, he will never become a star.

I don’t buy that line of thinking. I believe there’s great potential, but it will take some inspired management and coaching to get it out of him. He looked lost in the last third of the season. He didn’t seem to know what he should be doing on the ice and he looked even more lost at the exit interview, with a full-on deer-in-the-headlights gaze.

I think the problem is the pressure facing the Ste-Agathe native who is expected to bring back a little homegrown glory to les Canadiens. This is a team and a society starved for star French-Canadian hockey players. It’s been a long time since the team has had a true franco vedette who’s not a goalie and when Drouin arrived in summer 2017 following the trade that sent defenceman Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa, expectations were ridiculously high.

And he couldn’t take it. He is a star and has more media profile than any teammate — just look at all those TV commercials. But the coaching staff needs to work with him. In some ways, it reminds me of another former Habs enigma, Alex Galchenyuk. These are players you need to just let be themselves, skilled offensive guys who simply aren’t that good in their own end.

I also believe Drouin will thrive when he feels he’s not the main man, that he’s a secondary player who just has to do one thing — produce points. So is the Canadiens’ coaching staff up to the challenge with Drouin? We’ll soon see.

bkelly@postmedia.com

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