ESTERO — In three preseason games, here is what Jonathan Drouin has learned about the NHL:
"The league is faster," he said. "The players are bigger. There are a lot of challenges."
The question is, has the No. 3 overall pick of the June draft met enough of those challenges to earn a roster spot out of Lightning training camp?
With two preseason games remaining — tonight against the Panthers at Germain Arena and Saturday at Florida — nothing has been determined, coach Jon Cooper said.
There is no time crunch. Drouin, 18, can play nine regular-season games before the team must decide to keep him or send him back to juniors so the clock on his three-year contract does not start.
Whether Drouin is with Tampa Bay or Halifax of the junior Quebec league, "mostly we want him playing," general manager Steve Yzerman said. "It's not the end of the world if a player has to go back (to juniors). But we certainly want to give him every opportunity before making that decision."
After a 2012-13 season in which he had 41 goals and 105 points for Halifax and was MVP of the junior Canadian Hockey League, Drouin entered camp with huge hype.
The left wing has shown flashes of the puck skills and vision that caused Cooper to say "his upside is endless." But there have been growing pains.
Drouin said he knew the speed of the game would be greater, but he still is not completely acclimated. He knew players would be stronger and acknowledged, "They're bigger in the corner, so it's harder to play."
Drouin, 5 feet 11, 194 pounds, has one assist and three shots in three games, with an average 14:09 of ice time. In two games at center, he won 6 of 18 faceoffs (33.3 percent).
To be fair, Drouin's challenges are faced by all draftees getting their first NHL taste. But his high draft position means right or wrong, he is expected to overcome them quicker.
That is where things get skewed, Cooper said.
"The jump from junior to the NHL is a massive one," he said. "I can't imagine a jump from junior to the NHL. …. It's just a fact he's playing a game with so much more pace than what he's used to, and it takes time to catch up. You can see he's progressing each game. He looks more comfortable than he did at the rookie tournament games (before camp), so that's a good sign that he's slowly catching up to the game. But it's going to take time.
"Take where he was drafted out of the picture and let's just let the player develop. I don't think we can judge Jonathan Drouin in one month of his rookie season."
Drouin's fate is just one decision facing Tampa Bay, which has perhaps three forward positions to fill in its top 12 and nine players from which to choose.
Still, Drouin's situation is probably the most watched, not only by fans in the Tampa Bay area but in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
"Wherever I end up after this camp," Drouin said, "I think I learned a lot."
NOTES: Left wing Ryan Malone did not practice Wednesday because of what the team called an upper-body injury, but Malone said it was a body-maintenance issue. He was expected to play tonight against the Panthers. … Florida goaltender Tim Thomas, who took last season off to spend time with his family, plays his first NHL game tonight since an April 25, 2012, playoff game for the Bruins. … Yzerman said the plan "right now" is for Riku Helenius and Cedrick Desjardins to "get all the minutes" in net at Syracuse, which means Kristers Gudlevskis, drafted 124th overall in June, likely goes to ECHL Florida. … Cooper said there will be no cuts after tonight's game and that Saturday's preseason finale for some will be "one more shot to see what they can do."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected] View his blog at lightning.tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LightningTimes.
Lightning vs. Panthers
When/where: 7:30; Germain Arena, Estero
Lineup: Goaltenders — Ben Bishop, Kristers Gudlevskis. Defensemen — Keith Aulie, Mark Barberio, Eric Brewer, J.P. Cote, Dmitry Korobov, Matt Taormina. Forwards — Brett Connolly, B.J. Crombeen, Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Pierre-Cedric Labrie, Ryan Malone, Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik, Tom Pyatt, Marty St. Louis, Nate Thompson.