MONTREAL - Jonathan Drouin is the first to admit it: the learning curve at the center position in the NHL is steep. The homegrown star likes playing center, which was his position in Junior, but it's a whole other ball game in the big leagues.
That said, he'll be patient with it. Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin will be patient. As will head coach Claude Julien.
Why? Quite simply, because for the time being, that's where the team needs him. Without the coveted No. 1 center the club has been after for some time now, Drouin is the one who best fits the bill.
"In an ideal world, where we would have that No. 1 center, that player who could make those big plays, [Jonathan] would be on the wing," the general manager outlined at his mid-season press conference on Sunday. "But we're doing the best with what we have right now. Jonathan is putting the team first and he's also aware of what's going on."
But Drouin isn't sour about where he's been slotted in; quite the contrary. In training camp, he told his coach that he loved playing center.
"He told me at the start of the season that he'd like to play center, because it gives him a lot of ice, a lot of space," recalled Julien. "And he'll only improve by playing the position."
During his mid-season assessment, Bergevin affirmed that the 22-year-old would likely be more comfortable on the wing, but that he could only come out of the whole experience a more complete NHLer.
"I'm not ready to say that he's losing his season, because he's learning a lot. For sure, in an ideal world, he's a winger," he proclaimed. "But for now, that's the position where he can help the team the most. We're aware it's not the ideal position, but it can't hurt him, because as soon as he goes back to playing wing, he'll be the same player he always was there."
The shifty forward himself agrees with his general manager, and has made it his personal mission to grow from the challenge.
"I knew it would be tough. It's a pretty tough position to learn in the NHL, especially when it's been a few years since you've played there," admitted the Huberdeau native. "I don't know how it'll be in the future, in two or three years, if I'll be at center or on the wing. But it's my goal to be a good centerman in the NHL. I'm at center right now, so I'm not thinking about whether I should be on the wing instead. I want to improve and become an elite player at center."
Drouin's work in the faceoff circle, where he currently holds a 40.3% success rate, is probably the area that needs the most work. And he knows it.
"I've been comfortable for awhile, but the faceoff aspect still bothers me a bit," he admitted. "It's a project. You work on it, watch videos. But I still feel pretty comfortable.
"It's still a challenge for me. Some nights are easier, some are more difficult. It's about not giving up. There are some days where you'd prefer to be on the wing when you have a bad night in the faceoff circle, but I'm ready. At the end of the day, it's a learning experience."
And everyone agrees that education can only serve to make him a better player.
"If ever there was a center who showed up on our team and gave us the chance to put Jonathan on the wing, [Jonathan] will be an even better player, because he'll understand the position. He can only improve by playing there," added Julien. "He's not a bad center. Sure, he may not be winning a lot of faceoffs and he has a lot of things to learn on defense, but I see a guy who, since the start of the year, has really started to understand his position. I feel like whenever he goes back to the wing, he'll understand the center position and will adjust his game even more with the center he'll be playing with. I think he has more to gain than to lose at the moment."
Regardless of the position Drouin plays, his goal remains the same: get the puck.
"When you're in the offensive zone, it doesn't really matter which position you're playing," concluded Drouin, who has 19 points to his name this season. "Wherever the puck goes, that's where I want to go."