TAMPA — Touted Lightning wing prospect Jonathan Drouin will be out 3-4 weeks with a slight fracture in his right thumb, putting his start to the season in jeopardy.
It's a big blow to Drouin, and the Lightning, as the 19-year-old was expected to make the team out of camp. Tampa Bay's regular-season opener is Oct. 9 against the Panthers.
"I felt ready, I felt in shape, everything felt the way I wanted it to feel when I showed up here," Drouin said. "So for this to happen is obviously unfortunate. Not much you can do about it."
It's unclear what it means for Drouin, the No. 3 overall pick in 2013, who either has to get a roster spot in Tampa Bay or get sent back to juniors. General manager Steve Yzerman said the injury likely won't impact how Drouin is evaluated when it comes to a roster spot, and that he is eligible to play conditioning games in the American Hockey League next month if the need arises.
"We wanted him to get in as many preseason games as possible to get comfortable, get more acclimated and fit in to the group, see where he fits in, particularly in the lineup and the depth chart," Yzerman said. "It's a setback, you're going to get hurt at some point in your career, all these guys unfortunately do, it's a physical game. It's a minor injury, just needs time to heal. The doctors are adamant that once it heals … he won't have to deal with this potentially nagging him for an extended period of time."
Drouin said he suffered the injury in Thursday's rookie practice, falling awkwardly on his hand during 2-on-2 drills in the corner. "Just a little collision and I fell on it," he said. "Wasn't a big hit or anything, I just lost balance and fell on my hand and my thumb kind of twisted."
Drouin felt the pain, but didn't tell the team until after he tried getting through Friday's practice, the Lightning's first full-squad workout. He was held out the next three days and skated on his own, not realizing he'd be out this long. Drouin said the thumb has improved, and the team considered him day to day until Monday's X-ray.
"I didn't think it was that bad, it's disappointing it's that long," Drouin said. "I was hoping it'd be something shorter, shorter days or shorter weeks."
Drouin was disappointed he was sent back to juniors in last year's training camp, but dominated at Halifax and felt like it rounded out his game. He came into camp this September in tremendous shape — leaner, faster and more mature. Drouin was considered a strong preseason candidate for the Calder Trophy, which goes to the top rookie, and espn.com rated him the league's top prospect.
Drouin plans to continue skating on his own, making sure he's ready when he's healthy.
"The season is coming up so it's really disappointing to probably not (start) the year," Drouin said. "It's hard. It's hard to think about what to do, but not much you can do about it."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.