Nearly a year ago, during the Tampa Bay Lightning‘s preseason training camp, there came a point where something we’d spent the summer taking for granted, Jonathan Drouin making the team, became suddenly not so certain.
The moment it became not so certain was during a Q&A session with Jon Cooper, during which session Cooper seemed far more guarded about Drouin’s future than some of the other prospects fighting for a roster spot.
We all know what happened. Drouin was sent back to junior, which came as a shock to anyone who wasn’t paying attention. The reason he was sent back, of course, was only somewhat related to Drouin.
Sure, he struggled with the pace of the preseason games, and he was a bit undersized, and (according to ESPN’s Pierre Lebrun) was trying to beat opposing players too often with his hands “from a stand-still” rather than using his feet.
In short, Drouin wasn’t quite NHL ready. But the bigger reason why he didn’t make last year’s squad was because so many older, more experienced rookies were NHL ready. Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Richard Panik forced their way onto the team as a three-man unit, which didn’t leave a lot of room for rookies. In fact, a bigger shock that Drouin’s demotion, if you were paying attention to the TB preseason, was actually the demotion of Brett Connolly.
And of course we know what happened from there. The Lightning wound up using a small army of rookies throughout the season (plus Brett Connolly, who’s technically not a rookie), two of whom wound up Calder Trophy finalists. Drouin, meanwhile, returned to junior, which meant he was ineligible to be recalled, and dominated. But more importantly than dominating, he reportedly made strides defensively and played the entire year at center, a position the organization is on record saying would better suit his skills.
And now here we are again, nearly a full calendar year later, and all the buzz around the Lightning, again, says Drouin is a sure bet to make the team. Is that true?
Short answer: Yes.
REASON #4 TO BE EXCITED ABOUT THE 2014/2015 TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING SEASON: Jonathan Drouin will be on the team.
The best indication about Drouin’s chances of making this year’s Lightning squad came over the summer, when it was reported that Drouin had been advised by management to look for a house in Tampa Bay. By asking Drouin to commit to the area, the team is saying it has committed to Drouin. Which means, regardless of Drouin’s training camp and preseason performance (barring something truly catastrophic), the Bolts won’t be sending him back to junior.
And that might actually have less to do with the Lightning’s belief that Drouin is NHL ready than it has to do with their belief that he’s simply too good for the QMJHL. And I would be inclined to agree with that. Drouin put an exclamation mark on his QMJHL season with the Halifax Mooseheads when the playoffs came around and he scored an astounding 41 points in just 16 games. (Feel free to pick your jaw up off the floor at any time.)
But Drouin’s return to Halifax wasn’t entirely made of gumdrops and rose pedals. Early reports painted Drouin’s disappointment over his demotion in poor light, and the truth is they were probably being nice. Some not so nice fans of the Mooseheads didn’t shy away from words like “sulking” and “lazy.” And indeed, the numbers reflect that. Drouin’s first five games with the Moosehead were mediocre by his standards. He scored five points. But in hindsight, that only magnifies the magic that was about to happen.
After that fifth game, Drouin sat out for nearly two weeks with a pulled groin.
Now, allow me to put on my admittedly unrealistic homer glasses for a moment. If ever there was an injury that could make a player look “lazy” on the ice, it’s a pulled groin. And I think anyone who’s ever suffered one will agree to that. So I don’t think it’s entirely outside the realm of possibility that Drouin returned to Halifax with a groin issue and attempted to play through it, until the issue became a full-blown injury and he was forced to sit out games. (Yes, I realize that it’s much more likely that he returned to Halifax and sulked through five games until he pulled his groin, but my unrealistic homer glasses are what they are.)
Whatever happened, when Drouin finally hit the ice again on October 18 of last year, he was over both his injury and his disappointment about being sent back to junior. He went on to score 108 points in just 46 regular season games—far and away the league’s best point-per-game average.
Even more impressive was the absolute tear Drouin finished the season on. In the Moosehead’s final six games of the regular season, Drouin scored an astounding 22 points, including seven in the season’s final game. An even more staggering statistic: counting both regular season and playoffs, Drouin scored 77 points in what should be the final 28 games of his QMJHL career. (Might as well leave your jaw this time.)
But it’s not just about points. No one is closer to Lightning prospects than Stacy Roest, who is a former teammate of Lightning GM Steve Yzerman and now serves as the team’s director of player development. In a June interview, Roest spoke in-depth about the strides Drouin made last season.
“He played so much,” Roest said. “He played every situation. He improved on faceoffs. He really rounded out his game and became more mature.”
One of the big issues that kept Drouin from making the Lightning last year was the question of icetime. The Lightning could have kept Drouin on the roster, but he would likely have played sheltered minutes, and not many of them.
But that’s all in the past now. What can we expect from Drouin looking forward?
Well, the first thing I would say to that question is this: temper your expectations. Drouin might well come in and be a rookie dynamo right out of the gate. But then again, he might not. Jon Cooper has a tendency to make his rookies earn every bit of responsibility they’re given, and Drouin will be no different. If he starts the year centering Tampa Bay’s third line, which is a very likely scenario, points won’t come easily. I would urge you, if that happens, to be patient. In hockey, success is often based on both the quality and quantity of your opportunities. And one thing that remains the same for Drouin as last year is he still finds himself lower on the responsibility ladder than guys like Palat and Johnson.
That said, the door will be open for Drouin to prove himself, and that should start as early as the preseason. I think everyone expects Drouin to line up next to Steven Stamkos for at least one preseason game. And let’s face it, half of what’s so drool-inducing about Drouin is the idea that he’ll one day feed Stamkos for 135 goals in roughly a two week span. If they find instant chemistry, then Drouin might find himself starting his NHL career on the wing of one of the top two or three players in the game. However, if the chemistry isn’t instantaneous, then don’t be surprised if Cooper pairs Stamkos with a more familiar player, and one who’s earned some NHL stripes.
But part of the excitement isn’t about what Drouin will bring to the team. It’s more about seeing the opening chapter of a promising career. We’re all rooting for him to be the next NHL superstar, but with that comes the risk that he’ll be the next NHL bust. And we get to be invested in that very personal journey with him.
In my mind, that’s the thing to be most excited about. It’s the questions, the adversity, that make pro sports worth following. Whether he sinks or swims, we’re going to watch, and to an extent we’re going to feel it right along with him. We’ll feel a fraction of his elation when he succeeds and a fraction of his heartbreak when he fails. Why follow a team, or a player’s career, if you can’t get excited about that?