Canadiens hope search for first-line centre ends with off-season catch Drouin
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, September 11, 2017 4:10PM EDT
Last Updated Monday, September 11, 2017 7:31PM EDT
Every year since he was named general manager of the Montreal Canadiens in 2012, Marc Bergevin has been asked who will be the club's first-line centre.
He admits it's a good question, but says top centres are hard to find.
For now, the job still belongs to Phillip Danault, who many see as better suited to third-line duty, but the Canadiens are ready to take a long look at off-season acquisition Jonathan Drouin when training camp opens Friday.
Drouin, 22, was listed as a winger when he was acquired June 15 from the Tampa Bay Lightning for defence prospect Mikhail Sergachev, but he has played centre in the past. The Canadiens are making no promises, but the third overall pick in the 2013 draft will at least get a chance to fill what has been the team's biggest void in recent years.
"I didn't make that trade to say, 'Jo will be our next centre,"' Bergevin said Monday at the team's charity golf tournament. "No matter where he plays, I would have made that trade because getting a young player with that skill level doesn't come that often, especially a French-Canadian kid that wants to be here and wants to be successful.
"It was something I couldn't pass on."
Last season, they tried Alex Galchenyuk at centre and it looked to be working until the 2012 third overall draft pick was injured in mid-season. But management felt he wasn't handling the defensive side of the job, and coach Claude Julien, after he replaced Michel Therrien in February, came to the same conclusion.
So while Galchenyuk was handed a three-year contract extension worth US$4.9 million per season on July 5, he will earn it playing on the wing.
"For his and our team's own good, we see him as a winger and there's nothing wrong with that," Julien said of Galchenyuk. "He's a great shooter and with the right people, he'll have some success and that's what we're looking for."
Julien is also intrigued by what the shifty Drouin can do in the middle.
"He's played there before and he's got the attributes to be a good centreman," the coach said. "He likes the space.
"He likes to use all the ice and that gives him an opportunity to express himself offensively. We've got eight exhibition games. That will give him a chance to work with teammates at that position. We're confident it's going to work."
Drouin spent the summer working out with Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty, who may end up being his left-winger. While Galchenyuk normally also plays on the left side, there is talk of stacking the first line with talent by putting him on their right side.
That's fine with Drouin, who expects an easy transition to centre.
"Max scores at a high pace and the way he skates for a big guy is quite impressive," said Drouin. "I'm excited to play with whoever it is but if it's Max it's going to be awesome."
There was speculation Galchenyuk would be traded until he signed his new contract. Now the slick playmaker and shooter is ready to play wherever Julien puts him.
"I want to be the best player I can be, whether it's on the wing or at centre," he said.
The Canadiens need to fill a hole on right side caused by the unexpected departure of Alexander Radulov, who turned down Bergevin's offer to sign as an unrestricted free agent with Dallas. Bergevin said he offered the same money, earlier than the Stars, but the Russian opted to leave the team that welcomed him back from the KHL on a one-year contract.
Veteran right-winger Ales Hemsky, who signed a one-year deal, and could play on the second or third line with Tomas Plekanec.
The club also lost long-standing defence stalwart Andrei Markov to the KHL after failing to agree on a one-year deal. With Alexei Emelin claimed in the expansion draft by Las Vegas and Nathan Beaulieu traded to Buffalo, most of the left side of last season's defence is gone.
They were replaced by free agents Karl Alzner, who inked a five-year contract at $4.6 million per season, David Schlemko, Joe Morrow and veteran Mark Streit.
Bergevin is hoping at least one prospect cracks the NHL roster. It could be big centre Michael McCarron, centre Jacob de la Rose, winger Charles Hudon or forward Nikita Scherbak.
Players report Thursday for medicals and fitness testing, with on-ice workouts starting Friday.