Why Colorado could be the perfect landing spot for Jonathan Drouin

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Coming here was not the only option. It was just the best one for Jonathan Drouin.

Every choice has its consequences. Other NHL teams reached out to Drouin and his representatives about joining their club. Those clubs had more salary cap space and offered more money than what the Colorado Avalanche presented to Drouin, which was a one-year contract worth $825,000 — a substantial dip from the $5.5 million annual salary he earned over the past six seasons.

Every choice also has its advantages. Drouin makes this clear while sitting in his stall at the Avs’ rustic practice facility just south of downtown Denver. One of them has to do with the stall just to the right of Drouin. Or rather, who occupies that space. It’s Avs superstar center and perennial Hart Trophy candidate Nathan MacKinnon. They’re best friends and have known each other for more than a decade, dating to when they were teammates with the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Another advantage is what playing for the Avs represents. It was just this time last year that the Avs were seeking to win a consecutive Stanley Cup. They navigated a series of challenges to win the Central Division and finish with the best regular-season record in the Western Conference, only to then have their title aspirations cut short with a first-round exit by the upstart Seattle Kraken.

Championships are how this current iteration of the Avs is being defined. One key to that has been bringing in players and helping them find higher levels of success than they’d seen before. Forwards such as Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri, Artturi Lehkonen and Valeri Nichushkin all set career highs while playing with Colorado. Defenseman Devon Toews went from a top-four option to a low-key Norris Trophy candidate since playing here. Goaltenders such as Alexandar Georgiev, Philipp Grubauer and Darcy Kuemper also enjoyed the strongest seasons of their careers with the Avs.

Is Drouin next? Can he parlay this opportunity into helping the Avs win their fourth Cup while also showing at 28 years old that the best is yet to come?

“With the team here, everyone could probably achieve their career numbers with the way they play and the way they move the puck,” Drouin said. “But that wasn’t really the main reason [why he signed with the Avalanche]. I don’t really have any goals for me other than finding my game back and helping this team in any way I can.”

SCARS CAN OFTEN go beyond being marks on flesh. They provide illustrations into the pain of a life. In Drouin’s case, he has two scars — one on each wrist — from the surgeries he has endured over the past few years.

Remnants of those incisions are noticeable, not just on Drouin’s body but his mind as well. Those scars were born out of pain and have created doubt, but now they have made Drouin optimistic. This is the first time in a while Drouin said he didn’t spend the offseason rehabbing from wrist surgery before starting his workouts.

Having confidence in a pair of fully healthy wrists is what has made the beginning of Avs’ training camp fruitful for him. Drouin has provided more than enough evidence to show that his wrists are fine. It’s the passes he plays during drills or the shots he takes.

Everything about the way his wrists move is fluid, smooth and uninterrupted — three traits that have not always been the easiest to attain in a career that has faced setbacks.

Expectations have long followed Drouin. Recording a pair of 100-point seasons in the QMJHL does that. So does going No. 3 overall in the 2013 draft to the Tampa Bay Lightning. He played three seasons in Tampa, with his final year there amplifying those expectations as Drouin scored a career-high 21 goals and 53 points.

Friction was also a part of Drouin’s time with the Lightning, which is what eventually led to him being traded to the Montreal Canadiens. Drouin scored 99 points in 158 games in his first two seasons with the Canadiens. Injuries hindered that production, however. In Drouin’s final four seasons, he recorded 87 points in 163 games with 29 points in 58 games in the 2022-23 campaign being his most productive.

Fighting through injuries also came at a time when Drouin was attempting to manage his mental health. He’s open about detailing the life-changing anxiety he experienced more than three years ago.

Drouin said he started experiencing anxiety in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that “being in the bubble didn’t help” — a reference to when the NHL held the 2019-20 Stanley Cup playoffs in bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto.

“The two months in the bubble really lingered,” Drouin said. “I don’t think I could tell you if we didn’t have that bubble I would have been fine or I wouldn’t have had to stop playing. But the bubble and the COVID year in Montreal, we had rules in Canada where you could not leave your house unless you were walking your dog. I’d walk my dog six times a day to get out of my house.”

Drouin also said being a top-three pick and a French Canadian who grew up an hour away from Montreal also contributed to his anxiety. He believed he was ready to carrying those expectations because he grew up watching other players handle them.

“Until you live it,” Drouin said. “No one’s ready for it.”

Longtime NHL agent Allan Walsh, who has known Drouin and represented him since he was a teenager, also grew up in Montreal. Walsh said playing in Montreal comes with “a wholly unique set of challenges and pressures” that no one can fully understand until they encounter it.

Walsh said playing in Montreal means coming off the ice to be greeted by 15 cameras and more than 30 media members on a near-daily basis. There’s also the constant attention that comes when a player is walking down the street, if they visit a local market for groceries or if they eat at a restaurant.

“You want to be welcoming and understand that this is a privileged set of circumstances that you are living under, yet at the same time when things are not going well, it’s just grinding you down every day,” Walsh said. “There’s no getting away from hockey off the ice. What players tend to do in this situation … is you tend to cocoon. You order in your food, you don’t go to the market, you don’t walk down the street, you don’t walk to the park to get some fresh air. You tend to avoid people and crowds. It turns into an isolating and insulated life and that is not always the healthiest lifestyle.”

Although Drouin wasn’t performing to the level he or the fans wanted, it wasn’t the primary reason why he struggled with anxiety.

Sleeping was challenging. Drouin would lie awake at night for hours, only thinking about hockey. He would think about the next game or what happened in the game the day before. Those thoughts forced him to replay an entire game in his head. Every single sequence that he was involved in played in his mind as if it were on a continuous loop that could only be interrupted when he realized he only had two hours to sleep before practice.

“I didn’t really go to sleep until I got help and really someone to talk to about the perspective of getting sleep and getting rest,” Drouin said. “At one point, it was just normal for me. I thought it was normal. I didn’t want help. I didn’t feel like I needed help. When you’re sleeping two or three hours a night, you can’t function as an athlete. You can’t perform the way you want to and your body is not responding either.”

Drouin said he realized he needed help when the Canadiens were in Calgary to play the Flames during the 2020-21 season. During that season, the NHL created what was basically an all-Canadian North Division so those teams could travel across Canada to comply with the nation’s COVID-19 restrictions.

“My body literally shut off on me. I remember that first practice and came to the hotel room and started feeling sick, started feeling tired and started having attacks,” Drouin said. “It was new for me and I thought I was sick. I thought I had a fever or something. Obviously, the doctor came and saw me and there was no fever and now I was even more worried about why I was feeling this way.”

Drouin said that “losing control of my body and having my body control me,” was the breaking point. He called his parents and close friends to open up about what he was experiencing. Drouin described it as one of the hardest and most emotional experiences of his life.

A week after his experience in Calgary, Drouin decided to step away from hockey.

“My parents knew and that was the part that hurt me when I was on the phone with them,” Drouin said. “My parents saw it before I saw it. When that phone call happened, I knew it was time to focus on me for once and get better. I’m still young but I was younger then and knew I still had a lot of years left in the NHL. I couldn’t follow that up for 10 years to live that way and handle that stuff by myself. I knew I needed help. Ever since then, my life has been great and I know how to handle those things.”

Opening up about anxiety and undergoing therapy were the first steps toward personal happiness, Drouin said. He found pleasure professionally the past two years in Montreal as well. The organization went through sweeping changes that led to the Canadiens hiring Kent Hughes as their general manager with Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Martin St. Louis becoming head coach.

Drouin said the arrival of Hughes and St. Louis created a sense of newness with the franchise which he believed gave him a clean slate. It also might have contributed to the past two seasons being among the most productive of his career.

While it’s natural to look at his statistics, Drouin explained how he found more positives in his game, allowing him a sense of comfort.

“The last two years have been good and I haven’t had anxiety, nor have the sleeping issues really come back,” Drouin said. “It’s been very positive.”

MONTREAL ALLOWED DROUIN to fulfill a childhood dream of donning those iconic red, blue and white sweaters that made him fall in love with hockey. But the reality of playing in Montreal at this stage of his career and the Canadiens building for the future did not quite align with Drouin’s aspirations to win a Stanley Cup.

There were opportunities elsewhere. Walsh said that there were “multiple teams with offers on the table and all for more money” while Drouin pondered his future.

He decided it was Colorado or bust.

“He was very motivated to reunite with Nate,” Walsh said. “Nate was texting him and calling him several times a day, pushing him to come to Denver and to come together again.”

The decision to join the Avalanche was layered. It started with Drouin’s relationship with MacKinnon, the fact that MacKinnon is one of the best players on the planet and is one of the faces on a team expected to complete for another championship. And Colorado made it clear it wanted Drouin.

Drouin also examined his surroundings. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar has not only won a Stanley Cup, but is the third-longest tenured coach in the NHL behind the Lightning’s Jon Cooper and the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ Mike Sullivan. Having a coach with the longevity and success Bednar and his assistants have and them wanting Drouin also was welcoming.

“Management is also sensitive to the challenges you have had before and is excited to bring you in too,” Walsh said. “Players love to go places where they feel wanted. From July 1, Jonathan felt like Colorado really wanted him. Players in the locker room really wanted him and it gave him a chance to turn things over and get a fresh start somewhere.”

Part of the reason the Avalanche has found success in recent years is how they make new players and their families feel welcomed. MacKinnon, who is an alternate captain, is quite involved in the process.

Several stories have been shared about MacKinnon’s intense nature. One came when Burakovsky joined the Avalanche after he was traded from the Washington Capitals. MacKinnon spent part of the offseason examining Burakovsky’s statistics and advised him to shoot more. Burakovsky recorded his first 20-goal season while scoring what was then a career-best 45 points over 58 games of the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season.

“I think since we have a relationship already it was easier, a little easier for me to kind of do some things that I think he should do on and off the ice,” MacKinnon said. “That’s been a lot easier for a new player. I’m not used to having new players come in that I’m really good friends with. But other than that, I try to make everyone feel welcomed as I can. We have a lot of new faces, so it’s definitely going to be important for us to come together quickly.”

Reuniting with MacKinnon comes with a sense of nostalgia and warm feelings. Drouin smiles when looking back at how MacKinnon would pick him up for school or practices, all while blaring early-2010s hip-hop. Drouin chuckles upon sharing that the biggest difference with the 18-year-old version of MacKinnon who drove him around Halifax versus the 28-year-old who is trying to steer him toward a Stanley Cup is that older MacKinnon is calmer.

Drouin is also realistic. He knows coming to Denver and playing with one of his best friends will be a challenge. Drouin said even as a teenager MacKinnon pushed their teammates considerably. He knows that type of mentality is what has allowed MacKinnon to be one of the best players in the world and also helped the Avs attain a level of success other teams covet.

What Drouin said about MacKinnon on a recent Friday afternoon backs that up. MacKinnon missed practice that day because he wasn’t in Denver or Colorado. He was home in Halifax, where the Mooseheads retired his number.

The following morning, MacKinnon returned, having taken an early morning flight so he could participate on the third day of training camp in late September.

“He hasn’t changed with that part, he was the same in junior where he’d push you to the end of the wall, sees there’s a hole in the wall and wants you to go further,” Drouin said. “I think this is why this team is so good. It looks like there’s a lot of guys who buy into that and become kind of like Nate a little bit. I think that’s why Nate’s had success [because] he’s never really satisfied with anything.”

MacKinnon’s mentality is one thing that defines this iteration of the Avs. Another is how they continue to have success with new players since Bednar and his staff have taken charge.

While Bednar admits that not every new player the Avs have acquired has found their place, there’s evidence that shows a good number of them have. Burakovsky had his three most productive seasons and could have been a three-time 20-goal scorer if not for the pandemic. Kadri went from averaging 0.64 points per game with the Toronto Maple Leafs over 10 seasons to averaging 0.87 points in three seasons with the Avalanche. Lehkonen finished with a career-high 21 goals and 51 points in his first full season with the Avs, while Nichushkin went from a first-rounder who struggled with the Dallas Stars to a hulking two-way presence averaging 0.63 points per game.

What is it about Denver that allows players — especially forwards — to reach the sort of highs they didn’t achieve elsewhere? Bednar said it is a multifaceted process that starts with the front office identifying players whom it believes will excel.

Bednar said if the Avs get those players, the next step is to have them spend time with the team to get acclimated. That gives new players a chance to experience the Avs’ work ethic, how their leaders work, how competitive they are and how much everyone pays attention to details.

Ryan Johansen, who was traded to the Avs in the offseason, echoed those sentiments.

“I remember our last playoff series where they swept up and it felt like there were 20 MacKinnons on the ice and six [Cale] Makars on defense. I’m not kidding. That’s what it felt like,” Johansen said, referencing when he and the Nashville Predators lost to the Avs in a first-round series during the 2022 playoffs. “The speed this team plays with, it’s exciting for me to be a part of it.”

Another newcomer who had a firsthand encounter with it was Ross Colton, who was also traded in the offseason. Colton won a Cup with the Lightning in 2021 and went against the Avs in a six-game Final during the 2022 playoffs.

“The organization I came from had great leadership and guys who knew how to win in the league and you see the same thing here,” Colton said. “Guys who know what it takes to win, how to carry themselves on and off the ice.”

Something else Bednar does with new players is watch 10 of their games from the previous season. He watches how they played early in the season, in the middle and late. He looks for how they performed in good games and bad ones. Bednar said he takes notes to get ideas about how to optimize a player’s usage based on how they operated with their former team.

“When you come in here, you really don’t have a choice but to follow that same thing,” Bednar said. “That’s going to bring out the best in people. I think [Drouin] is a perfect candidate to be able to step in and help us. The first three days of camp, he’s been one of the hardest working guys on the ice. He’s shown real quickness with an ability to make plays and score goals and play with those top guys.”