The Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves in a precarious position right now. After having used last Spring’s deep postseason run to catapult themselves onto the short list of the league’s chic teams, things haven’t come nearly as easy this season.
A combination of factors have them scratching and clawing to stay afloat in a murky Atlantic Division, with only a couple of points currently separating the teams sitting in pole playoff position and the ones on the outside looking in. Forget the underlying numbers which indicate that they’re still one of the league’s best possession teams (with their 52.1 percent possession clip good for 8th best in the league, and 3rd best among East teams) for a second.
Just purely based on their talent, there’s no reason to believe that the Lightning aren’t capable of a sustained stretch of strong play that’ll have them reclaiming the spot in the standings that everyone envisioned them having when they made their preseason picks.
Still, it’d be foolhardy not to acknowledge the combustible nature of the roster uncertainty they face. While Stamkos’ impending free agency has been stealing most of the spotlight (justifiably so), he’s hardly the only core player that they’ll need to make a decision on between now and the summer of 2017. In that time all three of ‘The Triplets’, Alex Killorn, and Vlad Namestnikov will all command sizeable pay raises as restricted free agents. Both of their goalies will also have their contracts come up, and Victor Hedman will surely go from playing on one of the more team friendly contracts out there to being paid like one of the most highly coveted defensemen in the league, which he is.
Then there’s Jonathan Drouin, with the latest chapter in a series of bizarre decisions regarding the handling of him as a premium asset having expedited the situation to nearly DEFCON1 levels. Following his AHL demotion it certainly didn’t take long for Drouin’s camp to publicly request a trade.
On the surface, Tampa Bay’s decision wasn’t necessarily an indefensible one. Drouin’s been battling through an injury that’s kept him out of the lineup, and it would make sense that the Lightning would like him to work himself back into peak game shape. He’s also still just 20-years-old, and would hardly mark the first young player whose team wanted him to cut his teeth and refine the edges of his game against lesser competition. Like most players at this stage of their career he admittedly has some things to iron out in his own zone. The fact that there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen among the forward group and that he doesn’t have to pass through waivers, whereas someone like Jonathan Marchessault does, surely factored into it, too.
All of that would be understandable if this were an isolated incident. The issue, however, is that by all accounts this is something that’s been bubbling beneath the surface for a while now. His presence in the press box for Lightning games during their playoff run would’ve likely been a larger point of contention had they not continued to win and advance. Now that they’re stumbling through the regular season, it’s that much tougher to look the other way.
There appears to be a misconception about how Drouin has acquitted himself during his limited time in the league thus far. His box car stats are hardly overwhelming. He only has 6 goals in 89 games, which makes sense considering he’s putting just a paltry one puck on net per game on average.
While those totals should rise as he progresses deeper into his career, he’ll probably never be a big goal scorer. And that’s perfectly fine, because that’s not his game. He thrives when he’s freed up to be creative through the neutral zone, and distribute the puck as a playmaker. When he was running rougshod through the QMJHL, he was putting the puck on a platter for volume shooters such as Nathan MacKinnon and Nikolaj Ehlers.
You’d think that sort of profile would play perfectly next to someone like Steven Stamkos, a spectacularly symbiotic marriage of talents. That’s what makes Jon Cooper’s reluctance to give Drouin a significant look flanking one of the league’s best shooters awfully curious. Particularly since both the coach himself and the braintrust above him have shown us plenty of reason to believe that they’re a savvy, forward-thinking group.
Instead, Stamkos is trudging along while being saddled with lesser players, more suited for a defensive, grinding role than helping as prolific a scorer as we’ve seen thrive. Stamkos’ offensive stats aren’t the only ones that are down across the board. After leading the league in five-on-five goals last season, the Lightning are currently 19th this year, on pace for 49 fewer such tallies. The questions about how he’s been utilized in 2015-16 are only heightened when taking into account those struggles, and the efficiency with which Drouin has produced when given a chance since coming into the league:
Where the two parties go from here will be an interesting storyline to follow. If 29 other teams weren’t inquiring about his availability prior to the trade request, they certainly are now. While I still think Steve Yzerman and his staff aren’t likely to panic and sell him for below market value, it’s not like we’re without precedent here. Despite the growing number of cautionary tales suggesting that giving up on a young, prolific offensive talent at this point of his career is almost exclusively a horrible idea, history repeats itself time and time again.
For an enterprising front office, this looks like one of those situations where you combine the assets you’ve been quietly accumulating over time to put together a package that may stop the Lightning in their tracks. A team like the Arizona Coyotes or Carolina Hurricanes, for example, who have drafted well and stocked up their prospect pool over the past couple of years would do take advantage of the corner Tampa Bay has been backed into. Considering the space they have on their books, they could potentially even sweeten the pot by taking on a bad contract or two to help Yzerman create space for the aforementioned medley of upcoming free agents.
Anything within reason is a worthwhile gamble for those organizations, especially if the possibility of turning a couple of quarters into a crisp new dollar bill really is there. The recent past tells us that’s the side of the deal you want to be on.