UFA, Russia — Long before Jonathan Drouin stepped into the spotlight on hockey’s international stage, he had already won over Andre Tourigny as a fan.
“His hockey sense and IQ is through the roof,” said Tourigny, an assistant coach for Team Canada at the 2013 world juniors. “But along with that he’s a competitor, he wants to make the difference and he plays with a lot of poise.
“I’m a big fan of Jo because I think he’s a player who will make the key play at the right moment.”
Tourigny, who coaches the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, has seen the kind of effect Drouin can have on a game first hand. The 17-year-old has been a standout with the Halifax Mooseheads this season and has carried his dynamic play into a spot on Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship. Last season in the QMJHL playoffs Drouin and linemate Nathan MacKinnon went on a tear, helping Halifax reach the semifinal where they lost in six games to the Rimouski Oceanic. Drouin finished his spring fling with nine goals and 26 points in 17 playoff games, only one point behind his friend MacKinnon.
“He has the best hockey IQ I’ve coached against in the (QMJHL),” said Tourigny, who has been behind the Huskies bench for nine seasons. “It’s unreal.
“I’ve never coached against a guy like that.”
Tourigny said playing against Drouin is difficult because if you try to shut him down, he’ll just take his game to the next level. It’s his ability to always find an open man and make the right play that has made him a rising star on a team with older, more experienced players.
The fact he was only playing midget hockey before moving to Halifax at Christmas last year has already been well documented, but it’s still hard to imagine his game could have progressed so fast in such a short time.
“It’s fun to be here right now even though I’m 17,” said Drouin, who is playing on Canada’s second line with Niagara IceDogs forwards Ryan Strome and Brett Ritchie (which has also earned time as the team’s second power-play unit). “It’s a really big step from last year when I was (playing) midget. I think I’m going to improve every game and help the team win.”
He said he’s not concerned about his rising draft stock. He isn’t concerned about the media building up a rivalry between him and MacKinnon, who is also draft-eligible. MacKinnon has already spent so much time in the spotlight that Tourigny believes Drouin’s newfound fame will help ease the pressure off the Nova Scotia teenager many have touted to be the NHL’s top pick come June.
“(Drouin) is in an easier situation than Nate,” said Tourigny. “Nate is in a tough situation because he’s in the spotlight – he can’t fail. We’ve tried to talk to him about that, to ease that pressure.”
There’s a distinct double standard between the two players because MacKinnon has been under the hockey world’s microscope for so long. But, as Tourigny points out, the youngster isn’t the first phenom to go through this type of sometimes overwhelming scrutiny.
“I remember Sean Couturier (now in the NHL with Philadelphia) two years ago, it was the same pattern. From the start he was targeted as the key guy, the top gun. Everyone was looking at him, and as soon as he made a mistake everybody would talk about it.
“When a guy like Drouin makes a mistake, people say, ‘Oh, but he’s still good, so whatever.’ So it’s kind of unfair for MacKinnon right now.”
Tourigny said that at the team’s selection camp in Calgary in December, he felt MacKinnon was under far more pressure to perform because the expectations for him have always been so high.
“I had doubts about Nate because I knew that he would maybe try to do too much,” said the coach. “Jo has that cockiness – in the right way – that confidence, that would make a difference.”
At the moment MacKinnon finds himself relegated to Canada’s fourth line which, for him, is unfamiliar territory given his stature in Halifax. MacKinnon said he’s OK with that, showing a level of maturity that often isn’t found with 17-year-olds.
“At the end of the day it’s a tournament,” said the 17-year-old. “It’s not for individual success. For me I’m not worried about my draft status or anything like that. I’m just happy to be here.
“Going from 25 (minutes) a night to less is definitely different, but we won 9-3 yesterday (against Germany) so we’re getting plenty of offence,” said MacKinnon.
He’s been rooming with Team Canada captain and NHLer Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a conscious decision made by head coach Steve Spott since the two have had similar hockey paths.
“He’s a mature guy,” said MacKinnon of Nugent-Hopkins. “He’s very focused. It’s very nice to have him on our team for all the guys to learn from him. He was the best choice for captain as well.”
To be sure, Canada will be heavily scouted here with both MacKinnon and Drouin eligible for the 2013 NHL entry draft. But while the scouts gathered in Russia to watch and analyze the two teenagers, they insist they aren’t thinking that far ahead. In Ufa, they both have eyes on one prize.
“I have one goal and that’s the gold medal right now,” said Drouin.