Jonathan Drouin returns to Tampa Bay on Thursday for the first time since last summer’s trade.
How will Lightning fans treat him?
Boos and jeers for a player who was as enigmatic as he was talented during his brief time in Tampa Bay?
Or whistles and cheers for a player who gave fans plenty of thrills and chills during those three seasons?
"It’s going to be mixed, like a lot of trades,’’ Drouin told Tampa Bay Times Lightning writer Joe Smith. "Some people obviously still like me, and some people didn’t like what I did. That’s just normal and part of what happened in Tampa. No matter what happens, I’ll have a lot of respect for the city and the fans and the team.’’
My prediction: No boos. No cheers. No nothing.
More like a shrug and a ho-hum.
What we all thought was going to be the most anticipated regular-season game of the year is just another Thursday night for the best team in the NHL.
Jonathan? Jonathan Who?
Funny how it has panned out. Lightning fans just about lost their minds when they learned their favorite team traded Drouin, a maddening yet wildly talented scorer, to the Canadiens. He was only 22 and had shown enough flashes of brilliance that fans thought he would haunt Tampa Bay forever.
It wasn’t if Drouin was going to be an elite player, but when.
Drouin had a bumpy career with Tampa Bay, even quitting the franchise for a spell. But that all seemed to be in the past as Drouin put up 21 goals and 32 assists last season, many of them worthy of highlight reels. He looked well on his way to being a Lightning star for the next decade. But something always felt off between Drouin and Lightning. There was a disconnect.
So the Lightning traded him to the team where he grew up: Montreal.
"This is a dream come true,’’ Drouin said at his first news conference with the Canadiens.
But it could prove to be a nightmare.
It’s not easy playing for the Canadiens. The fans demand greatness. The media can be overwhelming. It can be especially tough on young French-Canadian players who are quickly compared to Montreal legends such as Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur. Many have gone there and failed. Probably the last truly great French-Canadian to become a superstar was a goalie. But even Patrick Roy’s time in Montreal ended on a sour note when he was traded.
"When you’re Francophone here, it comes with responsibilities," former Montreal forward Vincent Damphousse told Sports Illustrated in October. "A lot of people want it, but they can’t do it. To perform and be the leading scorer, you need a special talent. Jonathan certainly has that. We’ve been looking for that No. 1 center for years in Montreal, someone who can take this team to the next level.’’
Drouin might be that player someday. He’s not there yet.
Drouin is having a so-so season. In 32 games, he has only five goals and 13 assists. His 18 points are tied for third on a team that doesn’t have much scoring to begin with. Worst of all, he is minus-15, lending credence to the belief in Tampa Bay that he has never realized there are two nets on the ice.
Making it even worse for Drouin is just how well the guy traded for him is doing in Tampa Bay. Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev is actually outscoring Drouin. In 35 games, Sergachev has eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points, which is eighth on the Lightning and tied for first among NHL rookie defensemen. He’s plus-12 and certainly should be included in the rookie-of-the-year conversation.
All that is great for Sergachev. And that makes it awful for Drouin.
The belief was that initially the Canadiens would have the better of the trade. Drouin would make an immediate impact and it would take Sergachev a couple of years to develop into a good NHL defenseman.
But the trade has been heavily slanted in the Lightning’s favor from day one.
That all can’t be blamed on Drouin. He plays for a lousy team that can’t score. Meantime, Sergachev is blessed to be on this season’s best team, one that pumps in goals like it’s the 1980s. And that the Lightning is so good means it doesn’t miss Drouin. Or Ben Bishop. Or Brian Boyle. Or anyone who has left.
Drouin will get it going in Montreal. Don’t make a big deal comparing his scoring totals with Sergachev’s. That’s kind of a fluky thing and will change eventually. Of course he’s a better scorer that Sergachev.
But he’s not a better player. Not now and maybe not ever again.
Look, in the end, here’s hoping Drouin has a great career with Montreal. He has said a bunch of nice things about Tampa Bay and its fans. He talked about how "cool’’ it is coming back to town. He also has said he doesn’t regret anything that has happened. He still thinks playing for the Canadiens is a dream come true.
I happen to think he’s a good guy and a heck of a player. In fact, give him a hand Thursday.
If you notice him.