UFA, RUSSIA – Jonathan Drouin's play has been so good at the World Junior Championship that he will start Monday's game against the Russians on Canada's top line alongside centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and right winger Mark Scheifele.
"We want to look at creating some more depth scoring and I think, right now, Jonathan Drouin has proven to us that he's capable of playing with players like Ryan and Mark and we're going to give him an opportunity," head coach Steve Spott explained.
That means the much-ballyhooed Lockout Line, which featured Nugent-Hopkins between Jonathan Huberdeau and Scheifele is, at least for the moment, no more. Huberdeau will now play on the left wing of the second line beside Niagara IceDogs centre Ryan Strome and Portland Winterhawks winger Ty Rattie.
The fact that changes were made ahead of the Group B decider in Ufa is not a big surprise. Spott made it clear after Sunday's 2-1 win against the Americans that he expected more from his elite players.
"Our top six forwards were OK," Spott said. "I think the group that got our job done was our gritty, penalty-killing-type forwards. Those are the guys who got the job done and of course Malcolm Subban, but I think our top six, to a man, would agree that maybe there's more in the tank and we're going to need more as we move forward."
That Drouin, a 17-year-old, who was considered a longshot to make the team in the first place, got a promotion will certainly raise some eyebrows. But Spott believes Drouin, who has 19 goals and 29 assists in 24 games this season with the Halifax Mooseheads, has a swagger that has allowed him to excel on the big international stage.
"He hasn't taken a step back," Spott said. "He feels he's a world-class player. He's confident in his own game and his speed and his ability to protect the puck and handle the puck is something we're looking for in that line and we just feel he can give us that dynamic."
Drouin, who has a goal, two assists and a plus-4 rating at the tournament, is one of three draft-eligible players on the Canadian roster along with his Halifax linemate Nate MacKinnon and Kamloops Blazer JC Lipon, a 19-year-old who was passed over at the last two NHL drafts. Coming into the selection camp in early December it was MacKinnon, ranked either first or second, behind American defenceman Seth Jones, on many top-prospect lists, who garnered much of the attention. But MacKinnon has played mostly a fourth-line role at the tournament while Drouin has been up on the second-line with Strome.
You can count Scheifele among the many people Drouin has impressed. The Winnipeg Jets prospect admits he didn't know much about Drouin until recently.
"I actually had no idea until I saw him in the [Subway] Super Series and I'm like, 'Man, this kid's pretty good,' and seeing him more and more, he was my roommate in Calgary, he's an unbelievable player and he has so much to bring to the table. He's way ahead of his time. Being a 17-year-old you don't even think of him like that with the way he plays the game," Scheifele said. "It's unbelievable how good it is."
Huberdeau, meanwhile, insists he has no problem being dropped down a line to make room for the younger Drouin.
"There's no surprise," said Huberdeau, one of six returning players on the team. "The coach's decide and they know what they want. I think it's great."
The Florida Panthers prospect is looking forward to playing beside Strome, who is tied for the tournament lead in goals with Finland's Markus Granlund. Both players have bulged the twine four times through three games.
"I'm just going to try and pass him the puck and he's scored every game so that's what I'm going to try and do," said Huberdeau, who has four assists in the tournament.
Canada's bottom two lines will also undergo a makeover with centre Boone Jenner done serving his three-game suspension and Lipon coming back from his one-game ban. Jenner will play in between Phillip Danault and Brett Ritchie while the fourth line will see Mark McNeill in between Anthony Camara and MacKinnon. Lipon is expected to start as the 13th forward.
Spott outlined a few reasons why Jenner's return is significant.
"He brings more of a forecheck presence, again, we want to be an aggressive team on the forecheck and he gives you that element," Spott said. "He's hard, he's a strong man, he plays physical, he protects the puck down low so I think he brings that that plus limiting other guys from having to kill too many penalties. We've had a lot of guys do double duty the last couple of games so that buys us more minutes with some of our top-end players."