Jonathan Drouin working through ‘grind’ in AHL

Steve Yzerman talks with George Stroumboulopoulos about Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Drouin’s trade request and his relationship with head coach Jon Cooper.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The Syracuse Crunch boarded a lime green bus on Sunday morning and made another trip across Interstate 90. After arriving at Blue Cross Arena for their third game inside 50 hours, they were greeted by a lifeless building that was about one-third full thanks to the NFL playoffs.

This was bound to be where Jonathan Drouin was reminded he’s not in Tampa anymore.

But if the 20-year-old is in low spirits while waiting out his trade request in the American Hockey League, he’s doing a great job of hiding it. From his teammates. And the coach.

“It’s actually been great,” Rob Zettler said after his team’s 2-1 win over the Rochester Americans. “I walked into a conversation and he’s engaged with all of our guys — he’s making plans to go to a movie, making plans to go out with a bunch of the single guys at home.

“It’s not an issue at all.”

All it took was three games in three days for Drouin to blend in and start looking like any other member of the Crunch. On the ice, there were occasional reminders that he was the most talented player in uniform, but even then Zettler largely rolled four lines and spread around the responsibility.

The main reason the Lightning sent him to Syracuse was to get playing time — not as punishment for his trade request, which agent Allan Walsh took public last weekend — and Drouin looked plenty gassed while standing outside the visitor’s dressing room on Sunday night.

A groin injury had limited him to nine games with the Lightning since late October, so this was a challenge. Drouin finds the style of play more chaotic in the AHL and not as conducive to creating skilled offensive sequences.

“It’s a grind,” said Drouin. “Every shift is a grind. You know guys talk about it, but you’ve got to experience it. There’s not that much space out there compared to the game upstairs or even in juniors.

“It’s definitely a different atmosphere, a different game than up there.”

His best opportunity to score against Americans goalie Robin Lehner — here on a conditioning stint from Buffalo — came at the end of a solo rush in the first period. Otherwise, as the centre of a line with Adam Erne and Yanni Gourde he largely concerned himself with the defensive side of the puck.

It was an ugly game with both teams playing for a third time this weekend. It certainly wasn’t the kind of place to flash the offensive ability that got Drouin drafted third overall by the Lightning in 2013.

“There’s a lot of chip-in, chip-out,” said Drouin. “But that’s part of this kind of league, that’s the way they play. I thought we created some chances.”

There weren’t as many scouts in the building on Sunday as there had been for the Crunch games earlier in the weekend, but St. Louis director of player personnel Rob DiMaio was among them.

The Blues were linked to Drouin on Saturday’s weekend headlines.

More than a dozen scouts were in attendance in Albany on Friday, when Drouin scored twice in the first period, and approximately 10 teams were represented for Syracuse’s victory over Hershey on Saturday.

Drouin finished the weekend with 11 shots and the two goals and earned kudos from his coach.

“He was excited to play,” said Zettler. “His first game obviously in Albany you saw what he did and then he kept it going. Last night was probably his best defensive game — he didn’t give up much, wasn’t on for any real scoring chances against.

“And then tonight he was OK. I didn’t think anybody was good, we just kind of played.”

Some nights in the AHL are merely about survival.

There is no telling how long Drouin will remain with the Crunch. There was some speculation around the rink on Sunday that a trade could come soon, but Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has made it clear that he’s in no rush.

Despite the uncertainty and the fact Drouin himself has asked to be moved, the player appears intent on making the best of his time in limbo.

“He’s got the right attitude,” said Zettler. “It’s been a week now. From what I’ve seen, all he’s done is come down here and he just wants to play hockey. The other stuff he’s going to let his people take care of, and he just wants to play — that’s the best approach he can take.”

There were smiles all around as the players filed out of the arena and back onto the bus. The Crunch actually have a great setup among AHL teams, spending less time in hotels and on freeways than others because of Syracuse’s central location.

On Sunday night, they were facing a 90-minute trip home after collecting a second straight win. Drouin called it a “good weekend.”

“I’m going to back to Syracuse,” he said. “That’s how it is right now, that’s the plan. I’ll keep going from there.”

Even if it takes him to Binghamton before he gets back to the big show.

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