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Drouin, Lightning both carry blame in wing's trade-request saga

Left wing Jonathan Drouin, middle, seems to believe the Lightning hasn’t given him a chance to develop in the NHL.
Left wing Jonathan Drouin, middle, seems to believe the Lightning hasn’t given him a chance to develop in the NHL.
Published Jan. 10, 2016

VANCOUVER — They were all smiles back then.

On June 30, 2013, Jonathan Drouin stepped onto the Prudential Center stage in Newark, N.J., and first threw on a blue Lightning jersey. He put his arms around coach Jon Cooper and general manager Steve Yzerman, and posed for a photo.

It was a dream come true for Drouin to get drafted No. 3 overall, with the Lightning envisioning him eventually replacing Marty St. Louis in a dynamic duo with Steven Stamkos.

"We probably have a player waiting in the wings that has the elite talent level that Marty has," Cooper told in September 2014. "It's pretty easy to draw the conclusion that that's someone who could be Marty's heir apparent."

But today it's possible that neither Drouin nor Stamkos will be in Tampa Bay next season. Stamkos, in the final year of his contract, is a big story in itself. But since Drouin's November trade request became public a week ago, with agent Allan Walsh calling his situation with the Lightning "untenable," it has been the talk of the hockey world.

How has Drouin's situation come to this?

Some suggest Drouin, with just six goals in 89 NHL games, is acting entitled and needs to realize his game must still mature and he entered the league on a very deep team that reached the Stanley Cup final last season.

But others side with Drouin, 20, who appears to believe he hasn't gotten enough opportunities from Cooper and Tampa Bay, and may never.

Both sides shoulder blame for the relationship being "untenable," Drouin especially for making his trade request public and the Lightning for not getting enough out of a touted prospect whom former Coyotes GM Bobby Smith, owner of Drouin's junior team, believes could end up an All-Star and an Olympian.

"Somewhere along the line, both parties have to take responsibility here," said NHL Network analyst and former Flames GM Craig Button. "(Drouin) feels he's not getting an opportunity to show what he can do. Why is that the case? It's too easy to say he should just suck it up and go play. And on the other hand, you can't put all the blame on the team for not putting him in position.

"I think the situation is more about both parties taking a deep breath, take a step back and take a long, hard look at what they're both trying to accomplish."

Drouin is now with AHL Syracuse, where he was reassigned to get more game action after injuries. It's uncertain if he'll play with the Lightning again.

"We have a reasonably good track record of bringing our young players along," Yzerman said Friday. "We'll see how it all plays out."


The case for Drouin:

His disappointment began early in his Tampa Bay tenure. He got sent back to juniors four months after the draft.

Yzerman said at the time that the Lightning wanted Drouin to play more minutes, which would have been tough on an eventual playoff team. Even Brett Connolly, the Lightning's No. 6 overall pick in 2010, was assigned to the AHL after an outstanding camp.

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But Drouin was one of just two players picked in the top eight in 2013 not to get a nine-game NHL tryout at the season's start to make his case. The other was Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse.

Unable due to age to be sent to the AHL, which might have been better for his development, Drouin went back to Halifax, where he had 105 points the previous season. Drouin played center that season and tallied 108 points.

The next season, Drouin made his NHL debut on Oct. 20, 2014, delayed by a thumb injury that had erased his preseason. His playing time fluctuated. Six times he played fewer than 10 minutes. He often was stuck in the bottom six, which doesn't fit his skill set. His power-play use was spotty; he averaged 1:58 of time. Sometimes he was a healthy scratch. Still, Drouin has averaged 1.9 points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play since 2014, Yahoo Sports calculates, which on the Lightning is fewer than only Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, and is more than Stamkos.

Drouin, with four goals and 28 assists last season, makes his share of mistakes, but his defense got better as the season wore on. His 5-on-5 Corsi percentage — the percentage of on-ice shot attempts on goal, missed and blocked — was 1.36 above the team average, the website says. He appeared to be on a short leash last season, sitting long stretches after turnovers or miscues, which likely didn't help his confidence. Young players such as Panthers wing Jonathan Huberdeau, 22, and Flames center Sam Bennett, 19, have said it's given them confidence to get thrown on the ice for the their next shift after a bad play.

"Never will a young player sit a shift because he made a mistake," said Flames coach Bob Hartley, describing his philosophy. "Scotty Bowman was very successful and coached for decades, and his teams were still making mistakes."

Drouin worked his way back to the top line by March, with Cooper saying the bump in minutes was "earned" because the wing was being "responsible on both sides of the puck."

But in the Lightning's playoff run, Drouin was a healthy scratch in 20 of 26 games. Said Cooper of his decision: "There is more than one net in a rink. There's two. You have to be able to play in front of both."

In Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers, forward Jonathan Marchessault, who had played just four NHL games, got in the lineup instead.

Said NBC analyst Pierre McGuire: "You've got to be really careful as an organization in insulating a young player that you had enough confidence in to take third overall in a really solid draft. You've got to be really careful in terms of crushing that player's spirit and confidence.

"Those guys take a little bit longer sometimes to come around, and I think Jonathan will be able to do that."

This season Drouin returned determined, and he dazzled in the preseason with four highlight-reel goals. He was on the top line with Stamkos from Day 1 in camp, and he racked up six points in the first five games of the regular season. But what followed was a nine-game point drought and some injuries that have limited him to 19 games. In a Nov. 12 win against the Flames, Drouin played a season-low 9:26.

In November, Walsh asked Yzerman for a trade. If Drouin was upset by his situation, he didn't tell his teammates, impressing them with his work ethic and attitude. "He's been a pro every time he's been at the rink," Stamkos said. "Obviously I'm pulling for him." Said veteran Brian Boyle: "He's our guy. We obviously want him here."


The case for the Lightning:

Unlike other top picks from 2013, Drouin has been trying to crack a strong team, one that has now made back-to-back playoff appearances.

"When we're fully healthy, we've got a fairly deep forward group, and it's hard to get minutes," Cooper said. "When there's guys ahead of you, you have to wait your turn or you've got to beat them out."

It doesn't appear as if Drouin has garnered Cooper's complete trust on the ice. Cooper has used the example of Nikita Kucherov, who was brought around slowly as a rookie in 2013-14 and scratched during those playoffs before breaking out for 29 goals last season, 15 this season.

Connolly was eventually traded to the Bruins in March 2015. He told Boston reporters of getting playing time with the Lightning, "It's not going to be given to you, no matter how high a draft pick you are."

Drouin has little leverage for a trade. He is under contract for two more seasons and team control until he's 26. Agent Walsh made the request public likely hoping it would make a trade happen faster.

Walsh has a history of being very aggressive and outspoken for his clients, but Button said this move, though inviting more public scrutiny of Yzerman, isn't guaranteed to work.

"I think it speaks to a level of immaturity on Jonathan's part," Button said. "What made Steve Yzerman a great player was he was stubborn, too. It might be a case of a battle of wills."

Drouin is drawing significant interest around the league. More than 10 teams sent representatives to watch him score twice for Syracuse on Friday in Albany, N.Y.

Yzerman says he'll do only what's best for the team. But is this relationship salvageable? "I don't rule anything out," he said.

The GM says he can learn a lot from this saga. "I'm not telling you what, though. It's been an interesting process."