On the surface, the idea of a largely unproven 20-year-old player demanding a trade — and subsequently removing himself from the situation two weeks later — appears cut and dried. It is very easy to look at the picture from afar and immediately jump to the conclusion that Jonathan Drouin is currently acting both petulant and entitled. And while its absolutely fair for Lightning supporters to feel chaffed by this entire ordeal, a deeper look at the situation reveals the fact that Drouin is CERTAINLY not the only party at fault in orchestrating this unprecedented public dispute.
The question Tampa Bay fans need to be asking today is simple: Why?
Why did the Lightning allow the relationship with their most coveted prospect since Steven Stamkos deteriorate into something so hostile?
From the moment Drouin arrived in Tampa Bay, expectations were enormous. Before he even stepped foot on the ice for his first NHL training camp, many pundits and fans already had him pegged for a future role skating alongside Stamkos on the Bolts’ top line. The pressure was very real, but definitely not something Drouin was unprepared for. There is a certain cache attached to nearly all elite prospects. From the second extraordinary talent becomes apparent, players are thrust into the spotlight, typically at a very young age. A lot is expected of these players– and in turn they are soaked with praise, achieving minor celebrity status in some cases. In Quebec, where junior hockey holds a near-religious following, this phenomenon is more prevalent than anywhere in the world. Keep that in mind for a moment, and bear with me…
While obviously not pleased with the idea, Drouin accepted his initial demotion back to junior in the Fall of 2013 an immediately responded by increasing his previous season’s goal total by more than 25-percent. His reward the following year? A tumultuous rookie campaign that would begin with a nonsensical fourth line assignment and end with a seat in the press-box as a healthy scratch, benched in favor of 36-year-old non-factor Brenden Morrow.
Again, Drouin swallowed hard and returned to work in hopes that 2015-16 would finally bring an honest chance for him to earn a top-six role. Extra efforts put in over the offseason were abundantly evident in the early going, as his game became better-rounded and his production surged during September’s preseason and on through October. Unfortunately for Drouin, this significant uptick in performance would prove not good enough for Lightning bench boss Jon Cooper. After registering six points in the first five games of the season, Drouin saw his ice time reduced by nearly 33-percent over the following month.
Despite holding a tremendous 1.88 points-per-sixty minutes rating at even strength in limited action and a wide variety of roles, Drouin has not been given a legitimate chance to earn a full-time position within the team’s top-six at any point in his two and a half seasons with the Lightning. Every time it appeared that a corner had been turned, someone (read: Cooper) yanked the rug right out from underneath Drouin’s feet.
Now, this far from a suggestion that the Lightning should allow the practice of preferential treatment for any individual player, regardless of draft status. It is, however, a recognition of the reality that every prospect cannot be handled with the same uniform approach. For better or worse, with every player comes a different personality and a unique set of circumstances. There is a level of patience required in some cases, as well as an acceptance of the fact that the role of the organization is to maximize the potential in ALL of its players. In the case of Jonathan Drouin, the team has unequivocally failed in that regard, allowing a once untouchable asset to drop into the abyss, only to watch as his value on the trade market diminishes further with each day he remains away from hockey.
It has become overwhelmingly clear that the story of Jonathan Drouin and the Tampa Bay Lightning is quickly headed toward an unpalatable conclusion. As the final chapter draws to a close, the only question left unanswered is of where Drouin will continue his NHL career. Be it this season or next, he is sure to land in a position more appreciative of his ability.