Monday, December 18, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Control at the crux of Drouin's bold moves

In the court of public opinion, it has been a brutal week for disgruntled Lightning wing Jonathan Drouin.

Fair or not, he has been labeled a crybaby, a quitter, a spoiled brat, especially after the 20-year-old decided to not show up for Wednesday's game with AHL Syracuse, hoping to avoid risking an injury that would affect his trade request. That move got Drouin suspended indefinitely without pay by the Lightning, and he has returned home to Montreal to await the next move.

Drouin has almost certainly played his final game in a Lightning uniform, a trade a matter of time. Whether a trade happens in days, weeks or months, nobody knows. General manager Steve Yzerman can be patient because he has Drouin under team control contractually until the wing is 25.

That, to me, is the crux of the entire saga going public. Control. Drouin has no leverage because of the collective bargaining agreement and the entry-level contract he signed — willingly, mind you — after getting drafted third overall in 2013.

I don't think Drouin is a bad kid. Neither do his Lightning teammates, who support him, with veteran Brian Boyle saying, "We loved him in here."

But it didn't look good when Drouin made his November trade request public Jan. 3, likely doing it to accelerate a potential deal. After saying all the right things publicly for three years as he went from his disappointing trip back to juniors in his draft year to being a healthy scratch in last year's playoffs, Drouin made the bold, calculated, yet risky move to try to force the hand of Yzerman, one of the most respected men in hockey.

You just don't see a player Drouin's age this early in his contract, with just six goals in 89 NHL games, do something like this, especially while in a model organization that's coming out of a Stanley Cup final berth. Sure, Eric Lindros did it with Quebec after being taken No. 1 overall in the 1991 draft, but he's the exception.

"Requesting trades on an entry level (deal), that's something new for you and I. … Amazing," Ducks GM Bob Murray told the Los Angeles Times.

Yzerman said Drouin was sent to Syracuse on Jan. 2 to get playing time and prove he's healthy — he has played just 19 game with the Lightning this season in part because of injuries — with the plan of the wing coming back to Tampa Bay.

"When they went public with the trade demand, that changed everything," Yzerman said.

And maybe that was the plan. Drouin clearly wants out of Tampa Bay, and he's exhausting all his options to get it done, including withholding his services. That move, made to protect himself from injury, could keep him from accruing another year of service time. For that, he needs to be on the active roster for two more NHL games this season. If he doesn't get them, he can't be an unrestricted free agent until 2022, instead of 2021.

His agent, Allan Walsh, is taking some blame, and he's known for being aggressive, outspoken and combative. But make no mistake, Drouin is driving this ship. Walsh is simply doing what the prideful and sometimes stubborn player wants.

Drouin is betting on himself, and he'd better be right. It's enough pressure being a No. 3 overall pick, especially with the nine other players in the top 10 of that loaded draft already contributing steadily in the NHL. His buddy Nathan MacKinnon, the No. 1 pick by Colorado, won the 2013-14 Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie. Aleksander Barkov, who went No. 2 to Florida, is on its top line this season with Jaromir Jagr. Defenseman Seth Jones, taken No. 4 by Nashville and whom many thought the Lightning should have taken, is on his way to being a No. 1 defenseman for Columbus, to which he was traded this month.

The Lightning chose Drouin. He didn't pick the Lightning.

Drouin may very well turn into a very good NHL player. No one is doubting his talent and skills. That more than a dozen teams have shown interest in him reflects that and may raise the question of why he didn't earn more playing time in Tampa Bay.

Drouin will likely get the fresh start he desires, and the hockey world will be watching closely to see if he can deliver the goods. That's one way he can make sure shots at his reputation don't follow him the rest of his career.

"Jonathan is a 20-year-old professional hockey player. He's got to make his own decisions, and I'm not going to sit here and judge him on his decisions," Yzerman said. "I don't agree with the position, but that's for him to make, and where this goes and how this plays out eventually, I don't know.

"If he becomes a very good hockey player, all will be forgotten, I assume."

Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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