A deliberately-worded statement from GM Steve Yzerman made it clear that he’s in no hurry to make any deal that doesn’t benefit the Lightning, and Rob Zettler, coach of the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse, told Sportsnet that he “expects” Drouin to be in his lineup next weekend.
“The bottom line is he’s got to come down here and show everybody that he wants to play and play hard,” Zettler said following Sunday’s Crunch-Toronto Marlies game. “It’s the second-best league in the world and he’s going to have a lot of eyes on him – a lot of scouts are going to be watching – so the best thing he can do for himself, for the organization, for the team, for our team, for Tampa, for himself, is to come down and do everything he can to make himself a better player and help us win.”
Drouin is due to report to the Crunch for a Tuesday morning practice in Syracuse. It’s not yet clear whether he’ll be there.
The Lightning would surely suspend the talented 20-year-old winger if he failed to show up, something that would further complicate a situation that veered off the rails after Drouin was assigned to the AHL on Saturday.
That prompted agent Allan Walsh to go public with a trade request that was originally made in private in November, and left the Lightning seemingly intent on exerting their built-in control over the situation. With Drouin under contract through 2016-17 there’s nothing forcing them to make a deal, especially one they might come to regret.
But they have a messy situation on their hands.
When dirty laundry gets aired in public like this it’s natural to wonder how it could have been avoided. As in: Why did this relationship get so strained?
In truth, the cracks started forming months after Drouin was selected third overall at the 2013 draft. Had the Lightning been able to assign him to the AHL at the end of his first pro training camp, rather than being forced to send him back to junior, we’d arguably be in a different position today.
Drouin already had a 105-point season under his belt at that point and had won a Memorial Cup with the Halifax Mooseheads. There was nothing left for him to prove in the QMJHL, but it was the only place outside the NHL the rules permitted him to play.
Even though he would go on to produce another 108 points for Halifax in 2013-14, some inside the Lightning organization worried that he was developing bad habits in a league where he rarely had to play without the puck.
It was almost always on his stick.
Then came Drouin’s first NHL campaign a year ago, where he frequently found himself playing limited minutes on a contending team. He produced quite well given his usage – putting up 32 points in 70 games – but never seemed to gain coach Jon Cooper’s trust.
When Tampa made a run to the Stanley Cup final last spring, it did so with Drouin scratched for all but six games.
Now he finds himself on assignment in the AHL at a time when some of his contemporaries, including former junior teammate Nathan MacKinnon, are already established NHLers logging big minutes.
There’s no question that Drouin is also an NHL-level talent, albeit one who has been limited to just nine games with the Lightning since the end of October because of a nagging lower-body injury.
The purpose of assigning him to the AHL now is to get him more playing time than he would be afforded in Tampa, according to Yzerman. The player had a short conditioning stint in Syracuse last season and made a positive impression.
“He was great,” said Zettler. “He played two games, he had three points, he scored a game-winner. He came down, worked hard, had a smile on his face so there was no issues. It was good.”
These are much less joyful times.
Still, Zettler seems more than willing to give Drouin the benefit of the doubt. He sees it as a mutually beneficial opportunity for all parties.
“I have to look at it as I’ve got a player coming down and hopefully he can make us a better team and hopefully we can make him a better player,” said Zettler. “I expect him to come down and work hard to come back up. Those are my expectations.
“And I expect him to do what we’ve asked everybody else to do, which is to come down here and work hard and kind of game it out for your teammates and go from there.”
Is Drouin willing to do that for the Crunch?
His next move determines just how ugly this gets.