Win or lose, Jonathan Drouin's comeback to the Habs is a triumph
But team faces challenges if it wants to repeat last season's success
During his absence from professional hockey, it seemed entirely possible that Jonathan Drouin's tenure with the Montreal Canadiens — and possibly his career — was over.
So when the 26-year-old from Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts finished off a 2-on-1 to score the Habs' first goal of the 2021-22 season, for many, it felt almost surreal.
"Just today going to the rink was a complete different experience than the past couple years," Drouin said following the game Wednesday night in Toronto.
Drouin stepped away from hockey in April, partway through last season. Recently he revealed that he had been struggling with mental health issues, including anxiety and insomnia.
"One hundred times better, my head is clearer, I'm more in the game, I'm more focused ... It's nice to get one. But I wish we had the two points instead," Drouin said of his goal in the team's first regular season game.
Yes, the Habs lost the game to their storied rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, on opening night by a score of 2-1 but Drouin's goal was a triumph for the fans, friends, family and teammates who were pulling for him to recover.
He took the time off he required to treat his issues, and while it's still early, he appears to be in a place where he can start concentrating on excelling at his job again.
It might sound like a simple formula to most of us but until recently, the subject of mental health among professional athletes was almost considered too taboo to broach.
That's changing, thanks to athletes like Drouin, who are finding it possible to admit to themselves that they need help and also finding the courage to do it in the public spotlight.
If only the entire 2021-22 Montreal Canadiens season could be full of feel-good moments like that goal.
Is another trip to the Stanley Cup Final too much to ask?
Last season's run to the Stanley Cup Final was something Habs fans will never forget.
But professional sports is a "what have you done for me lately?" kind of world and in a hockey hotbed like Montreal, nostalgia isn't just a pre-game ceremony at the Bell Centre, it's a standard teams are held to year after year.
It could be tough for Montreal to live up to that standard this season.
The Habs have had a series of notable departures in the offseason, including several big parts of the veteran leadership that helped them navigate the NHL postseason last spring.
Captain Shea Weber's body has been worn down to the point that it's unlikely he will play at all this season.
Corey Perry parlayed his resurgent performance in 2020-21 into a two-year contract with Tampa Bay through free agency.
Top line centre, Phillip Danault, left in free agency to sign with the L.A. Kings.
Young forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi was lured away by the Carolina Hurricanes with a controversial offer sheet.
And it is unclear what lies ahead for star goalie Carey Price as he has taken a leave of absence from the sport to enter into the league's player assistance program. A social media post by his wife, Angela, stated the "importance of putting your mental health first not just by saying it, but by showing up and doing the work to get better."
It's a lot of holes to fill and, unlike last season, the Canadiens are back to playing in their traditional Atlantic division.
"We know it's going to be a grind, we're in one of the toughest divisions in the league here," said Habs assistant captain Brendan Gallagher.
Reasons to believe
On the plus side, roster turnover is nothing new in the NHL and the Habs have a number of players who appear poised to carry a much bigger load this season.
Cole Caufield is heading into his first full professional season and, after seeing what he is capable of in the playoffs last year, fans are already counting the days until he joins the ranks of the league's elite goal-scorers.
Nick Suzuki, who is fresh off inking a new eight-year $63-million contract extension, seems ready to have a breakout season.
On the blue line, there is still hope the young Alexander Romanov will be the eventual key to unlocking the Habs middling powerplay.
And then there is Drouin.
Until now, he's failed to live up to the expectations on the ice that were set for him when he first arrived in Montreal. But what a story it would be if he did so this year and going forward.
It should also be noted that regardless of what happens with Drouin on the ice, his contributions off the ice are exceptional. Among his charitable endeavours he gives $50,000 a year to the CHUM hospital foundation and is on his way to fulfilling a pledge to raise an additional five million dollars.
The Canadiens acknowledged his efforts by awarding him the Jean Béliveau Trophy for community leadership this year.
It's a good lesson that there are a lot of ways to win, aside from lifting Lord Stanley's Cup.