Agent requested Drouin trade in November
The Jonathan Drouin saga in Tampa Bay got another big dose of drama Sunday.
Just one day after Drouin, 20, was assigned to AHL Syracuse, his agent, Allan Walsh went public with a statement that he formally requested a trade from the Lightning in November. It's been a rocky journey for Drouin since he was the No. 3 overall pick in 2013, and it appears the touted wing would like a fresh start.
"It's in everyone's best interest that Jonathan be allowed to move on and play hockey," Walsh said in a statement released to several media outlets, including the Tampa Bay Times. "Let's be clear, Jonathan loves playing for fans in Tampa, he loves his teammates and many people within the Lightning organization have treated him well. It was his sincere intention to play for Tampa Bay for many years."
Whether Drouin ever plays again for the Lightning remains to be seen. But just because Drouin asked for a trade, doesn't mean he'll be getting one. GM Steve Yzerman issued his own brief statement Sunday evening, saying the club does "acknowledge" Drouin's request, but expects him to report Tuesday to Syracuse.
"Moving forward, my sole intention is to act in the best interest of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey club," Yzerman said.
Drouin, who has played in just 19 games this season due to two separate injuries, was sent down specifically to get more playing time, Yzerman said.
Yzerman is under no obligation to trade Drouin, who has little leverage as he remains under contract through 2016-17, after which he'll be under team control as restricted free agent. The trade request happened in November, and with nothing happening, that's likely why Walsh, who hasn't been shy in being outspoken for his clients, went public Sunday, possibly hoping to move things along.
Sure, Drouin can be a valuable trade chip, and others teams (maybe Toronto or Nashville, to name a few) certainly will be interested in his unique offensive talent. But so should Tampa Bay. With captain Steven Stamkos' contract situation uncertain going forward, months away from being an unrestricted free agent July 1, the Lightning needs young, skilled, cheap forwards like Drouin in coming years to replace a void left if Stamkos leaves.
And despite Drouin's roller-coaster tenure in Tampa, Yzerman is still a big believer in a forward who not too long ago was considered one of the game's top prospects.
"I think he's a tremendous young talent," Yzerman said Saturday. "One, he needs to stay healthy and get in the lineup and show what he can do."
You don't say that about every player, and you certainly don't give up an asset like that - a player Tampa Bay selected over Nashville defenseman Seth Jones in the 2013 draft - without some pause. Yzerman is right, Drouin needs to stay healthy, having just returned to the lineup Wednesday after missing eight games with a lower-body injury. He played just over 10 minutes against the Rangers Wednesday, a minus-2, while on the fourth line. With everyone healthy, Ondrej Palat's return giving Tampa Bay 14 forwards, someone had to go, and it made sense to the Lightning to get Drouin some playing time in the AHL.
Yzerman did say he considered how getting sent to Syracuse, no matter the reason, could impact Drouin mentally and insists the second-year wing understood.
"We take everything into account," Yzerman said Saturday. "But we have reason for doing it and I believe in the reasons for doing it. Jonathan expressed to me he understands the reasons for it. So again, we want our players to succeed and we want them to play well and put them in best position to succeed. And I believe this helps that."
There have been some who have questioned whether Drouin has been put in the best situation to succeed in Tampa Bay. After getting sent back to juniors for the 2013-14 season, Drouin often played sparingly in a bottom six role during his 70-game rookie season, his ice time fluxuating as he had four goals and 28 assists. In March, Drouin was on the top line with Stamkos, with coach Jon Cooper saying then Drouin earned it with his two-way play. Then Drouin was a healthy scratch in 20 of the 26 playoff games.
Drouin, both in the playoffs, and before this season, publicly denied any issues with Cooper. Drouin did enter training camp with a chip on his shoulder, and led the Lightning with four preseason goals, seeming primed for a breakout season. From day one at training camp, Drouin was on a line with Stamkos, and all seemed right again. Drouin racked up six points in the first five games before a nine-game point drought. Then, injuries popped up. Once again, Drouin's minutes have been all over the map, from a season-high of 17:54 against Dallas Oct. 15 to a low of 9:26 against Calgary Nov. 12.
Every player has to earn their minutes, and Drouin is not a perfect player by any stretch, but he seems to have a short leash with Cooper, who has limited his minutes later in some games following mistakes. Drouin has made his share of miscues, something that's natural for a playmaking forward, but no Lightning forward has been immune from turnovers.
It's the chicken and the egg complex. Has Drouin played well enough to merit more ice time? Or have we not seen what Drouin is capable of because he's not been given enough of a chance, put in a role that is more suited for him? One tough part is that with a deep forward group, and the Triplets back together, how does Drouin crack the top-six, unless he replaces Valtteri Filppula or Alex Killorn on the top line with Stamkos? Even if the Lightning didn't put Drouin in the top-six, at the least he could be valauble on the power play, which has struggled for much of the first half of the season. That would allow Drouin to use his strengths, while also gaining some confidence. But Jonathan Marchessault and Vladislav Namestnikov have gotten more opportunities on the power play than Drouin.
The Lightning has been known for its strength in developing young players. It certainly gave Andrej Sustr a long leash, allowing him to play through the expected growing pains of a young defenseman the past two seasons. Now Sustr is rewarding the Lightning's faith, playing 20 minutes the other night. The Lightning showed patience with Victor Hedman, the No. 2 overall pick in 2009, and he's turned into one of the league's best defensemen.
It seems like it comes down to trust. Does Cooper trust Drouin enough on the ice to give him the ice time/role the wing wants/needs? Does Drouin trust Cooper? Those answers may or may not come, at least publicly, in coming days or weeks. For now, Drouin needs to report to Syracuse with a good attitude, take out whatever frustration he might have on the AHL and dazzle. It's the best for both parties. A strong performance in the AHL will either increase Drouin's trade value, or force the Lightning's hand in calling him up.
You wonder what kind of impact Drouin's decision to go public with his trade request will have among teammates, coaches and management. The Lightning has enough issues in having to fight for a playoff spot, not to mention the potential distraction of the Stamkos story, which doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon.
This isn't ideal, not for Drouin, and not for the Lightning, which opens a four-game road trip Tuesday in Calgary.
What happens next remains anyone's guess.