Thomas Hickey (left) and Jonathan Drouin (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The same player who was maligned for a lack of maturity when he left the Lightning in a snit earlier this season is emerging as a player who seems to have learned his lessons.
BROOKLYN - Nobody really knows how this Jonathan Drouin saga with the Tampa Bay Lightning is ultimately going to play out. But wouldn’t it be neat if 10 years from now, when Drouin is a star in the NHL and the lynchpin of the Lightning, we’re all sitting around talking about how his 2016 winter of discontent might have been the best thing that could have happened to him?
To be sure, nobody would be terribly surprised, given all the twists and turns this story has taken. But one thing is sure, the same player who was maligned for a lack of maturity when he left the Lightning in a snit earlier this season is emerging as a player who seems to have learned his lessons with, ahem, Lightning speed. And in a playoff season where the Lightning are missing their most dynamic offensive player, Drouin just might be proving to the organization that there could be life after Steven Stamkos.
“The story is not over,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, perhaps with a note of optimism in his voice. “We’re just in the first couple of chapters. This guy, I think, is going to write one heck of a hockey story for himself.”
Well, the first couple of chapters have us hooked. Take the Lightning’s 5-4 overtime win over the New York Islanders in Game 3 of their playoff series last night. Drouin took a thundering hit from Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey that knocked him out of much of the second period and half of the third. But the same impetuous kid who quit on his team in the minors and could have taken the rest of the night off, came back to set up the tying goal with a lovely play in the last minute and add more credence to his early Conn Smythe credentials.
Here's the hit:
And here's the tying goal:
Now, that’s crazy stuff. Almost as crazy as a kid demanding a trade and saying he’ll never play for an organization again, then returning to the lineup only because of an injury and resurrecting his career. “Maybe looking back in a couple of years, was it the right thing to do or not?” Drouin said of his six-week hiatus. “I don’t know. But that’s the way it went and we’ll go from there.”
It’s important to note that Drouin still has one year to go on his entry-level contract, one Lightning GM Steve Yzerman will be even less willing to move after this playoff performance. So despite what his wishes are, Drouin and the Lightning look to be stuck with each other, and that’s a good thing. By this time next season, Stamkos will likely be gone, giving Drouin an opportunity to step into the breach and be the driving offensive force on this team. If that happens, all will be forgotten by then.
Think about it. The root of Drouin's discontent is that he wasn't playing and now he is. He never had an issue with the Lightning organization and he had no issue with his teammates. That leaves one guy, the coach who put Drouin in the lineup only because he had no other choice when Stamkos developed a blood clot. He's the same coach who was seen high-fiving Drouin after Brian Boyle scored in overtime. Talk about scenes you thought you'd never see. Ever.
To be sure, Cooper has become a fan of the player. He actually said after Game 3 that in a way, he respected Drouin for taking such a bold stand, as ill advised as it was. The night Drouin pulled the chute on the Syracuse Crunch, on Jan. 20, they were in Toronto to play the Marlies and there were about 50 pro scouts in the stands who came to see him play. Not a great move. But the same coach who couldn’t trust Drouin in the Lightning’s run to the Stanley Cup final last year has become a huge supporter. The transformation has been remarkable, really.
“I respect him so much the way he stuck up for what he believed in at the time,” Cooper said. “It’s been a pleasure coaching him.”
Yes, Jon Cooper actually said that. All of which provides an interesting study in how quickly things can change in this game. It also might provide trigger-happy GMs with a lesson on the virtues of patience. Yzerman did not get the deal he wanted for Drouin at the trade deadline and instead of settling for a short-term deal that might have given the Lightning a slight push, Yzerman continued to look at the bigger picture. And now it’s paying off for him and the Lightning big-time.
“He’s injected some life into our team and he’s been great to be around,” Cooper said. “Just what happened (Tuesday night), I think just spells his character and what he’s about, and just really proud of him.”
Nobody in the Lightning organization was saying those things about Jonathan Drouin three months ago. But then again, nobody could have possibly envisioned what is unfolding before our very eyes in these playoffs, either.