Jonathan Drouin, currently a member of the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, does not want to play for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning anymore. Agents don’t publish formal trade requests without their clients’ approval, so every word published in the release from Octagon’s Allan Walsh reflects a united front between him and Drouin.
The request is an intelligent strategic move by Drouin and Walsh. It casts more public scrutiny on Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, which could motivate him to rid himself of the situation sooner, i.e. mid-season, rather than later, i.e. the 2016 off-season. The request also acts as a honey pot to attract additional Drouin suitors, as there’s a big difference between “the media say Drouin might want out of Tampa” and “Drouin officially wants out of Tampa.”
I’ve already speculated on which destinations make most sense for Drouin, though Nashville and Columbus no longer apply. We can speculate further on whether Yzerman will “cave” or “hold his ground.” But perhaps the better question to ask right now is: what caused the rift between Drouin and the Lightning? Knowing the answer would offer a better clue as to whether the situation is reconcilable. With guidance from some sources close to the situation, THN offers a brief timeline of career roadblocks Drouin has experienced since the Bolts drafted him third overall in 2013.
1. The Lightning returned Drouin to junior to play center in 2013-14, yet they have never played him at center in the NHL.
Drouin played center at the midget level but spent 18 months on Nathan MacKinnon’s left wing in Halifax leading up to both players’ draft year. Upon arriving at Tampa camp in 2013, Drouin was asked to return to center. He wasn’t given a nine-game NHL trial, and Yzerman returned him to the QMJHL with the assignment of playing center for a year. In theory, it was a perfectly good idea, as Drouin was a pivot most of his life and had natural playmaking skills.
But if playing center was the reason Drouin went down, why hasn’t he played center since he became an NHLer in 2014-15? He has taken 39 career faceoffs in 89 NHL games. If the Bolts sent Drouin down for a specific reason and didn’t honor it, it’s natural to wonder if the decision was motivated by something else. How about finances? Keep Drouin down one more year, start his entry-level contract when he’s 19, control him until he’s 26 instead of 25.
2. Coach Jon Cooper publicly criticized Drouin for poor defensive play – even though Drouin is a good possession player.
Remember the Cooper sound bite last May during the playoffs? “There is more than one net in a rink,” Cooper said when asked about benching Drouin. “There’s two. You have to be able to play in front of both.”
Hm. Well, the possession numbers show Drouin is an effective two-way player on a team full of them. Interestingly, per puckalytics.com, his 5-on-5 Corsi relative to his team last season was 1.36, meaning his overall mark of 52.6 was 1.36 percent above the team average. The point here isn’t that he’s ready to contend for a Selke Trophy – it’s merely that his statistical profile doesn’t reflect that of a player deemed to believe there’s “one net in a rink.” Again, there appears to be a disconnect between Drouin’s lack of usage and the stated reason for it.
3. Drouin was scratched during the playoffs in favor of ‘black ace’ Jonathan Marchessault.
Marchessault, a black ace, was up with the Lightning during their second-round series with the Montreal Canadiens because Syracuse, Tampa’s farm team, was eliminated from the playoffs. Cooper went with Marchessault, who had two NHL games to his name, instead of Drouin when Ryan Callahan required an emergency appendectomy. Marchessault had enjoyed a strong AHL year, but sitting a player of Drouin’s talent level for a big Game 6 matchup was a shock.
4. Drouin has played bottom-six minutes throughout his career despite producing elite stats per minutes played.
Stick tap to Ryan Lambert for highlighting just how good Drouin has been on a per-60-minutes basis, producing the second-most assists per 60 in the entire league and more points per 60 than any Bolts players aside from the Triplets, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov, since 2014.
And yet, Drouin played 13:14 per game last season and sits at 14:07 this year, eighth among Lightning forwards. Drouin opened 2015-16 with six points in five games playing a regular shift with Steven Stamkos. During that stretch, Drouin played 15:55 per game. He peaked at 17:54 in the sixth game, then was cut to 11:54 the next and has averaged 13:28 since, spending the majority of his time on a checking line with Marchessault and Brian Boyle instead of with Stamkos and Callahan as a top-sixer.
From a pure hockey perspective, there’s little evidence to suggest Drouin was denied opportunities because of his play. The numbers tell us he is productive offensively whenever he gets a chance and that he is decent defensively despite a reputation to the contrary. Drouin seems to be blocked on the depth charts for reasons we – and perhaps he – don’t understand. Deductive reasoning suggests there’s a personal side to the rift, whether it’s between Drouin and Cooper or Drouin and Yzerman. A trade thus seems logical. The educated guess here is that Drouin belongs to a new NHL team before 2015-16 ends.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin