Jonathan Drouin soap opera could have big effect on Lightning's future

Rookie wing Jonathan Drouin, the third overall pick of the 2013 draft, has played in just three of 14 Lightning playoff games. Coach Jon Cooper says he uses the players he thinks will get a win.
Rookie wing Jonathan Drouin, the third overall pick of the 2013 draft, has played in just three of 14 Lightning playoff games. Coach Jon Cooper says he uses the players he thinks will get a win.
Published May 18, 2015


Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden and Lightning practice has been over for more than a half-hour. The Black Aces are now on the ice.

The Black Aces are not another hockey team. The Black Aces are a collection of players who are on a team but not in the lineup during the playoffs. They don't play in games. All they do is practice. They are the backups. Leftovers.

The star of the Lightning's Black Aces is Jonathan Drouin. Jonathan Drouin should not be a member of the Black Aces.

He is, and it's a problem.

The major concern for the Lightning at the moment is the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers, but quite the soap opera is developing with the Lightning and Drouin. And it could have a major impact on the future — the Lightning's and Drouin's.

Drouin was the third overall pick of Tampa Bay in the 2013 draft. Take a player that high and he is supposed to be a star. He's supposed to be a key piece of the team, a part of the core. He is not supposed to be skating with the Black Aces.

"It's definitely frustrating," Drouin, 20, said. "Anybody will tell you that if they are not in the lineup that you obviously want to be in."

Why isn't he in? Why isn't a player who is so skilled offensively not in the lineup for a team that, at times this postseason, has struggled to score? Why is Drouin wearing dress shoes instead of skates on game nights?

Those are simple questions with no easy answers.

The first stunner was Drouin wasn't even given a look-see last season after being drafted. Tampa Bay could have kept Drouin around for nine games before sending him back to juniors, but it never gave him the chance to earn his way onto the team. Drouin returned to junior hockey and didn't join the Lightning until this season. He played 70 games. He scored only four goals, far below expectations, but had 28 assists and was a respectable plus-3.

But now that the playoffs have arrived, Drouin has been kicked up to the press box. He has appeared in three of the Lightning's 14 games and has not performed well: no points and is minus-4. Meantime, fellow rookie Vladislav Namestnikov has played in 11 games.

Drouin couldn't even get back into the lineup when Ryan Callahan and Brian Boyle missed games with injuries. Lightning coach Jon Cooper shockingly went with Jonathan Marchessault, who had played only four NHL games before these playoffs.

"It has been an up-and-down season for me, so I'm kind of used to it," Drouin said. "Not much I can do about it."

Drouin is trying not to make waves. He knows he can't really complain, seeing as how the Lightning is one of four teams still alive. Meantime, just to be clear, Drouin's current status is Cooper's call.

"What are the 20 guys that we think are going to help us win tonight?" Cooper said. "Sometimes (Drouin is) in that 20. Sometimes he's not. … Offensive skills, there is no question he's fun to watch. (But) there's more than one net in a rink. There are two. So you have to be able to play in front of both of them."

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There are knocks on Drouin's game. His defensive skills have been questioned. His toughness has been questioned.

But he seems too good to be sitting.

Maybe this is all a part of the process Drouin has to go through to be a good player. Drouin is still just a kid, and maybe he does have a bright future ahead of him. But at this moment, something has gone wrong. Either general manager Steve Yzerman made a mistake taking Drouin that high or Cooper is making a mistake by not playing him.

It would seem that Drouin would benefit greatly from playing in these postseason games, and it's hard to imagine he couldn't contribute more than Namestnikov, Marchessault or Brenden Morrow.

There have been whispers that Drouin is not one of "Cooper's boys," referring to the players who played for Cooper in the minors. Maybe it's true that Drouin hasn't earned Cooper's trust the way those who played for him in the minors have. Then again, Cooper is trying to win a Stanley Cup, and would he really bench a player who could help him do that just because they didn't ride a bus together in the American Hockey League?

If all works out, Drouin will come back next season and live up to the hype of being a No. 3 overall pick. But you can't help but worry if Drouin's benching will have a long-lasting effect on the relationship between Drouin and Cooper, and Drouin and the Lightning.

Drouin said Sunday that he has no desire to leave Tampa Bay. "I'm happy here," he said. But of course he is going to say that. The relationship between Cooper and Drouin will have to overcome this rough start.

Is Cooper demonstrating tough love, or is there a bias? Is Cooper doing what he thinks is best for the Lightning and for Drouin? Or does he have doubts about Drouin's game — now and in the future?

This story is a long way from being over, and it might not have a happy ending.

For now, if you're looking for Drouin, you have to go see the Black Aces.