TAMPA — This summer, the Lightning could trade one of its most dynamic young players ever.
On the surface, it seems crazy, Tampa Bay parting with wing Jonathan Drouin.
It's also complicated.
Here you have a budding star coming off a breakout, 21-goal season. And at 22 years old, he's scratching the surface of his potential.
Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman believes Drouin can be a point-per-game player; there were just eight of those in the league last season.
Hall of Famer Phil Esposito, the franchise founder, said he hasn't seen a passer like Drouin since Wayne Gretzky. Yep, the Great One.
Captain Steven Stamkos labels Drouin a "big piece of the this core."
Imagine him being a superstar somewhere else?
"Those are trades you live to regret," said Bobby Smith, a former NHL GM and owner of Drouin's junior team in Halifax.
But the Lightning's needs are so glaring on defense, especially the need for a puck-moving top-four piece, Yzerman might just risk the possible downside of losing a generational player. Whether dealing Drouin is considered daring or dumb depends on the return. And it would be debated forever.
But how did we get here?
There's finances, with the Lightning hoping to sign restricted free agents Drouin, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson (plus a backup goalie), and just $18 million in cap space.
"Let's face it, (GM Steve) Yzerman has some incredible financial challenges coming his way, and he's got to be thinking about leaving a pile of money for (Nikita) Kucherov down the road," said Sportsnet NHL analyst Nick Kypreos. "Between Palat, Johnson and Drouin, there's not enough money to go around. Someone is getting the chair pulled out from underneath him."
There's value. Drouin's trade stock has never been higher. Ironically, it was Tampa Bay's decision to hold onto the former No. 3 overall pick at the 2016 deadline — even after Drouin's six-week trade request holdout — that set the stage for him to be one of the hottest targets leading up to the June 23-24 NHL draft in Chicago.
The way Drouin and the Lightning repaired their relationship, and rejuvenated his career, sparks the debate over whether he should be a core player or top trade chip.
You'd think Drouin and his playmaking ability, which are extremely difficult to replace, would make him close to untouchable. I remember asking Yzerman during the season if he's looked back and been thankful he didn't deal Drouin at the 2016 deadline.
"Of course," Yzerman said. "He's a (22) year old player, he's very good with incredible upside, and was a player we felt we really needed and wanted to keep. We aren't going to just move him for the sake of moving him, that didn't make sense."
Then there's the need. This year's lost season, the Lightning going from preseason Stanley Cup favorites to missing the playoffs, was revealing. Yzerman said the biggest culprit wasn't injuries. It was the amount of scoring chances his team allowed. The Lightning badly needs another top-tier defenseman, and Drouin might be the only piece that could net that kind of return.
Some national hockey analysts have projected Lightning depth charts for the 2017-18 season that don't even include Drouin. Scott Cullen, from Canada's TSN, predicts Tampa Bay will acquire Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin in a package involving Drouin.
"If you look at it in a vacuum, of course you won't trade a 22-year-old that talented. That's the kind of guy you build a team around," Cullen said of Drouin. "But you're not in a vacuum. The Lightning could use help on defense and if you want to use Drouin in order to do that, you'll pretty much have your pick of really good defensemen."
The volume of player movement in early June could be as great as we've seen in years. Executives are bracing for the June 21 expansion draft, grappling with decisions on whom to protect, and whom to deal before losing them for nothing to Vegas. Several teams have gluts on defense, making the Wild's Matt Dumba and Marco Scandella potential targets.
Yzerman insists he's not shopping Drouin, rumored to be part of Tampa Bay's reportedly nixed January deal with St. Louis for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
"Well even if I was," Yzerman says, "I wouldn't be telling you."
There's no guarantee Drouin gets dealt this summer. But it wouldn't be surprising if he is. And that, in itself, is telling.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.