When the Colorado Avalanche signed Jonathan Drouin over the summer, I was cautiously optimistic things would work out. After watching his tape in Montreal, you could see that the skill and vision were still there. There were obvious holes in his game that have been there for most of his career, but there was a base that Jared Bednar and company could work with.
Early in the season, it wasn’t looking great. While Drouin was generating chances, the complete game wasn’t always there, and he found himself in the press box a few times as a healthy scratch. Through it all, he kept a positive attitude, but with just three points in 15 games, it looked like the feel good training camp story of reuniting Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin on the same team might be short lived.
Then, something clicked. And Drouin deserves a lot of the credit for the turnaround. The work he’s put in has to be commended. He’s on the ice late after every practice, working with MacKinnon to hone his skills, and right now, that work is paying off.
The 28 year old winger, playing on an $825k contract, has very clearly bought in to what the coaching staff has asked of him. 17 points in his last 22 games is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s his play without the puck that is earning him the extra ice-time. The effort is there on the backcheck, along the boards, and in the defensive zone. He’s heading to the dirty areas around the net, and playing all around smart hockey. Playing with two highly skilled guys who want to push the pace offensively, you can tell that when he’s the third guy back, he understands now that he has to play it safe just in case the puck turns back the other way. It can’t be all offense, all the time.
His skill with the puck never went away. You can see the one-touch passes to hit Nathan MacKinnon in stride on the breakout, and the give-and-go work with Mikko Rantanen, who almost looks surprised when Drouin gets the puck right back to him. Heck, even his shot looks much better than it did during his time in Montreal. In camp, Drouin emphasized that this is the healthiest he’s been in years, as he battled wrist issues with the Canadiens. That’s evident when you watch him play.
When the Avalanche signed him over the summer, they were taking a chance. At just $825k, they could have very easily moved on if it didn’t work out, but seeing as how they didn’t add much in terms of top nine wingers, they obviously saw Drouin as someone who could work on their team and in their system.
Patience pays off, I guess.
Now the Avalanche face a different kind of question – is it time to start talking about a contract extension for Jonathan Drouin?
As of Jan. 1, Drouin is eligible to sign an extension with the team. There’s risk in trying to sign him to an extension right now, as there would be with any player. What if he slows down in the second half of the season? What if the wheels fall off? Given how Drouin’s career has gone, I’m not sure anyone can say with certainty that the Drouin we’re seeing right now is the Drouin the Avalanche will get the rest of the year.
On the flip side, if you hold off on contract talks until later in the year and Drouin keeps this up, he may price himself out of Colorado. Seeing as how he’s playing on the top line and top powerplay unit, that scenario is also very realistic. We know he turned down better offers over the summer to sign with the Avalanche, so there will be interest outside of Colorado.
There’s risk in every decision you make. This is the real world after all, but the Avalanche may have found something here. Drouin has skill, has shown he can play with your top players, has a relationship with the top players, and has bought in to everything the coaching staff has asked of him. Lose him in free agency, and you have to go through the process of finding another Drouin (or Evan Rodrigues). There’s no guarantee that will happen again.
What could a Drouin extension look like? That’s where things get a little tricky.
With the hope that Gabriel Landeskog returns next season, money will be tight. With Landeskog back, and assuming Nikolai Kovalenko makes his way over and into the NHL, the Avalanche will have 4-5 roster spots to fill and just a little under $3 million to do it. As they’ve done last few off-seasons, the Avalanche will have to get creative to open up some space to ice a full roster.
The sweet spot for a Drouin extension, if you’re the Avalanche, is likely around the $2 million mark on a shorter term deal. Double his salary, and hope that Drouin values fit over money. At this point in his career, maybe that’s what he’s looking for, and the reality is, the Avalanche might not be able to afford anything more than that.
Chris MacFarland has his work cut out for him before the trade deadline to improve the team this season, but it might be wise to look to the future a little bit. Extending Drouin now, while risky, could save him from having to find the next Drouin over the summer.