Jonathan Drouin set to be 'impact player' with Lightning

A bit later than expected, Drouin shines on big stage.

Published
Updated

CALGARY — It was all set up for a storybook ending Tuesday night.

Lightning rookie wing Jonathan Drouin, 19, playing in his second NHL game, raced down the left side on a two-on-one with captain Steven Stamkos in overtime against the Flames. A nightmare combination for any opponent in coming years, it was a dream for Drouin, whose parents, Serge and Brigitte, were sitting eight rows behind the Calgary net, anxiously awaiting their son's first goal.

"Go Jo, go!" Brigitte would often say.

That moment wasn't lost on Stamkos, one of the game's top scorers, who said he might have shot the puck instead of passing had Drouin already had the milestone.

"I wanted to set him up," Stamkos said.

Drouin, positioned near the left post, shot right away, thinking it was going in. But goalie Karri Ramo made a sick save with his blocker to delay history in Tampa Bay's 2-1 win.

"We were messing around with him that he didn't want to score there," center Tyler Johnson said, smiling. "Apparently he's going to wait for a bigger opportunity."

It was fitting, as Drouin, the game's top-ranked prospect, had to wait longer than he thought to arrive on the NHL stage. Drouin, the No. 3 overall pick in 2013, was stunned to get sent back to juniors at the end of training camp last year.

And just when he was poised to start this year in the lineup, a right thumb fracture on the first day of camp delayed his debut until Monday in Edmonton. Seven of the other top-10 picks from his draft reached the NHL first, including his best friend, Avalanche forward Nathan, who went No. 1 overall and won the Calder Trophy last season as the league's top rookie.

But Bobby Smith, the retired NHL forward who owns the junior team that Drouin and MacKinnon starred for, said the 5-foot-11, 178-pound Drouin might be the best of the bunch.

"He's going to be an impact player right away," MacKinnon said. "His vision, along with his puck-handling, combine those things with his ability to see a play develop before it even happens, not many guys can do that. He tore it up in juniors, and I'm sure he'll do the same thing in the NHL and have an unreal career."

•••

Watching Drouin's speed, it's surprising he was late to put on skates.

He preferred to wear boots while on the neighborhood rink until age 7, developing his quick, soft hands by stickhandling with a golf ball in the basement.

"I didn't like skating," Drouin said. "At one point, my dad said, 'You've got to start skating if you want to play hockey.' "

But once Drouin laced them up, he rarely took them off. With the ice just a five-minute walk from his Sainte-Agathe, Quebec, home — about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Montreal — Drouin would be out there before school, after school and late into the evening. His mother, Brigitte Dufour, said she would often bring dinner or snacks out to him.

"He'd eat," she said. "And then keep skating."

Drouin's favorite player was Avalanche captain Joe Sakic, dreaming of one day making it to the NHL.

"To be here now is a little surreal," he said.

•••

Halifax coach Dominique Ducharme first saw Drouin when he was 16, working on skill drills with several NHL players over the summer.

"He was way up there with them," Ducharme said. "You could see, even though he was young, he was something special."

Drouin said he considered playing college hockey, eying Boston College or Northeastern, but joined MacKinnon at Halifax in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He really gained notice by getting selected for Canada's world junior team in 2013 at age 17, a little over a year removed from playing midget hockey. He was placed on the top line, with Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

"He didn't take a backseat to anybody," said Steve Spott, Canada's head coach and current assistant with the Maple Leafs. "There are no favors at that level. We're doing what we can to win a gold medal, and he was a player we thought could help us because of his skill set. It was earned."

Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, said he never heard much about Drouin until he had two goals (four points) in six games for Canada, which lost in the bronze-medal game. "He was so dynamic, so shifty out there," he said. "He's going to be really good."

•••

On a line with MacKinnon in Halifax, Drouin helped form one of the most potent duos in junior hockey history. The two had instant chemistry on the ice, with Drouin's vision and playmaking and MacKinnon the power-forward finisher. In 2012-13, Drouin led the Mooseheads in goals (41) and assists (64) as his team won the Memorial Cup. He was regular season and playoff MVP.

"It was just a surprise every game we played. You never knew what he'd pull out of his hat," said Halifax goalie Zach Fucale.

For example, Smith, a former No. 1 pick, Calder Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion with the Canadiens, said if any hockey fan hasn't watched "The Shift" on YouTube, they're missing out.

In a half-minute flurry with Halifax, Drouin dazzled, putting the puck between the legs of the same defender twice, taking his own rebound off the boards and feeding a teammate for a goal. Drouin said "you don't plan that stuff," it's just instincts taking over.

"It was unbelievable, and I don't normally throw that word around," Smith said. "I watched how many hits it has on there (272,000 as of Wednesday), and 100 or so are from my computer. People come over to my house and I say, 'Take a look at this guy.' They say a picture is worth a 1,000 words. YouTube 'The Shift.'

"People in Halifax are still talking about it."

•••

After a dominating year like that, it was difficult for Drouin to get sent back down to juniors last year.

Smith said it took a few weeks for Drouin to mentally get over the move, but he was impressed how he developed into a more well-rounded player, and surprisingly, the "heart-and-soul leader" of the team.

Drouin said, in hindsight, the Lightning's decision was the best thing for him, believing he wouldn't be having this same type of success if he started in the NHL last year. "I'm much more mature physically and mentally," he said.

Drouin has been as advertised, handling the puck as if it were on a string, his unique vision — "a third eye," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said — making for a playmaking style that's an ideal fit with Stamkos on the top line. Drouin picked up his first assist Tuesday, logging nearly 20 minutes of ice time.

"Right now," Drouin said, "I'm still on cloud nine."

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

 
Advertisement