With the Jonathan Drouin saga likely nearing its end, fingers are still being pointed at both the Tampa Bay Lightning and the play himself. From the moment Drouin requested a trade, to his decision to sit out until his request is accommodated, to the near-trades following, there have been two sides to this story.
On one end is the entitled draft pick that cares more for a quick buck and a free ticket to the show than being a team player and doing what is best for the organization. On the other end is a team stunting the development of one of the brightest young prospects in the game, refusing to allow him to grow in the NHL.
The reality is that neither the Lightning or Drouin deserve to be blamed for the mess that they are in.
From the Lightning’s standpoint, the team has proven that they are able to win without Drouin in a top-six role, which is where he belongs. Drouin is 20 and still developing on the ice, so the notion that he is entitled to a spot with the NHL team is not fair to an organization that reached the Stanley Cup Final last season on the backs of the current top six.
Forcing Drouin into a bottom-six checking role would be underutilizing his skill, and making a trade to make room for Drouin would be depleting depth. With Drouin having been injured early in the season, it was simple for the Lightning to put out the lineup they deemed best and roll with it.
For all of the talk that the Lightning have not given the forward a chance, it is once again important to remember his age, and also that he played 70 games in the NHL last season. Tampa Bay afforded Drouin the opportunity to learn the NHL game in a season in which it made the Stanley Cup Final, even playing the young forward in three games in the Final.
That experience will be invaluable moving forward for the 2013 third-overall selection, and the organization does not need to apologize for not giving Drouin a chance in 2015-16.
The Lightning can–and has–made the argument that they are doing what they believe is best for their organization. That is what all NHL teams should be doing, and regardless of what any analysts or what Drouin says himself, the Lightning have the right to handle him the way they would like to.
On Drouin’s side, the fact that he was selected third overall in 2013 benefits his argument that he deserves a fair chance in the top six of an NHL team. Drouin has played in 89 NHL games, earning $925,000 on his entry level contract, as he has not been able to play top six minutes to prove he deserves a long-term extension. Comparing Drouin to other players selected in the 2013 Draft paints the picture of a player not receiving the opportunity he would like to have.
Among the players selected around Nathan Mackinnon, the first through sixth selections (Drouin not included) have averaged 199 games played in their NHL careers, compared to Drouin’s 89 games played. Mackinnon Aleksander Barkov, Elias Lindholm and Sean Monahan–four other forwards selected in the top six–have solidified top six roles, with Barkov receiving a six-year extension worth $5.9 Million per season.
The remainder of the forwards are due for extensions soon, with $4.5 million per looking like the lowest amount possible per player. Meanwhile, Drouin is fruitlessly trying to find his way into the top six to have the opportunity to earn that contract.
Drouin may come off as the spoiled kid that wants his free ride to the NHL, but he has worked tirelessly throughout his life to get to the point where he is ready, yet is not being afforded the opportunity to play in an elevated role. The Lightning may not be to blame for that because they need not apologize for having depth, but Drouin is wise for trying to better his career.
The risks involved in a 20-year-old asking for a trade because he hasn’t received enough of an opportunity are plentiful, and while Drouin’s request may turn some General Managers off to the idea of acquiring him, there are reasons the Lightning have been fielding offers from nearly a dozen teams.
The league recognizes that Drouin is one of the top young talents in the game, and the Lightning most likely do as well. There have been rumors of a rift between Drouin and Jon Cooper, but the most likely scenario is that the Lightning are too successful to mess with what works, and the player wants to move on with his career.
When he laces up for his new NHL team, there will be plenty of critics asking if he deserved to complain his way out of Tampa Bay, and plenty of critics asking if the team ever gave him a fair shake. The reality of the situation is that Drouin has every right to want a faster track to the NHL, as that is why hockey players play the game. There is no opening in sight in the near future unless Steven Stamkos leaves, and if there is a rift between Cooper and Drouin, the path to the NHL is even rockier.
Tampa Bay has every right to put the lineup that they feel gives them the best chance to win on a nightly basis on the ice, whether that includes Drouin or not. The Lightning have not done wrong by him, but their success has negatively impacted the prospect. This is not a case that needs finger pointing or lashing out at either of the parties involved. This is a case of an extremely talented young player, an extremely talented team, and a poor fit that can be remedied.