Jonathan Drouin (Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said Jonathan Drouin would have to earn his call up to the NHL, and he has been red hot in the AHL. An injury to Steven Stamkos opens up a spot, but Drouin is going to have to get past an ailment of his own before he has a shot at returning to the NHL.
Drouin, 21, is likely among the best bets to fill in as middle-six forward during Stamkos’ absence if the Lightning are looking for pure offense, but the youngster won’t be able to come up and suit up for the Lightning as Syracuse Crunch coach Rob Zettler told Dan D’Uva that Drouin is dealing with a lower-body injury. The ailment put Drouin on the shelf for Sunday’s AHL contest against the Utica Comets.
“He’s had some issues with it in the past,” Zettler said of Drouin’s injury. “It kind of creeped up. We played six games in nine nights last week. We took a couple days off during the week this past week for that reason — to make sure guys are healed up — then we go right back into a three-in-three. He just tweaked something in the lower body. He shouldn’t be too long, should be OK.”
Given the very public spat Drouin and the Lightning went through earlier this season, though, it’s hard to believe that an injury might be the only thing keeping him from heading back to the NHL. Don’t be shocked if what was once thought impossible happens, though, and Drouin is making his way back up to the Lightning by season’s end. He’s been that good in the AHL.
Before the injury, Drouin was more than making a case for himself with the Syracuse Crunch, and he’s arguably one of the hottest scorers in the entire minor league right now. In the 10 games Drouin has played since his mid-March return to the Crunch, the dynamic winger has scored nine times and has 10 points. In his past five games alone, Drouin has six goals, and with Stamkos out, the Lightning are going to need someone who can put the puck in the net.
Zettler told D’Uva that Drouin has been playing “firmer” in his second stint with the Crunch this season, and that the distraction of the trade deadline being lifted has helped Drouin refocus his game.
“Last time, he was waiting for something to happen,” Zettler said. “He was down here, potentially a trade was going to happen, maybe it wasn’t. It was just kind of out there. This time he’s playing. He has a chance to go to Tampa. Other than that, the trade deadline’s over, so he can just go play and not worry about the rest of it. He’s really focused on hockey, playing hockey, and getting back to where he needs to be, which is the NHL. That’s been freeing for him.”
One of the areas where Drouin has been most effective for the Crunch has been on the power play, which would again be another reason he’d be a fit with Stamkos out at least one month due to a blood clot. Drouin has three power play goals in his past six games, and Zettler told D’Uva that Drouin’s shooting ability has been the catalyst for the power play success.
“When it gets in (Drouin’s) hands, he usually has a good look at the net to take a shot,” Zettler said. “And he can find some tight spaces. He put it in some tight corners a few times to score some goals.”
Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has made it clear since Drouin’s return to the AHL that the only thing that would impact whether or not the young winger can return to the NHL this season is his ability to help Tampa Bay win games. Yzerman told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen in early March that if Drouin “deserves it,” the recall would come.
Well, with Stamkos out, maybe the fit is finally there for an NHL return for Drouin. Stamkos’ absence opens up a prime offensive spot for Drouin, and his recent performance in the AHL may show that he’s ready to take on a bigger role.