The Tampa Bay Lightning have been hit with a rash of injuries. First it was defenseman Anton Stralman then Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Ryan Callahan. But with the roster thinning and the Lightning in need of some scoring, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has made the move some believed could be coming: he called up Jonathan Drouin.
Drouin, 21, hasn’t played for the Lightning since Dec. 30, shortly before his season with Tampa Bay took a turn following a public trade request. Drouin was demoted to the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch and played seven games before walking away from the team. He was suspended indefinitely and returned home to Quebec to practice on his own while he awaited a trade. The trade never came, though, and following the trade deadline Drouin asked his way back into the Lightning organization.
Since then, Drouin has been on a tear in the AHL, and he’s made it clear that he’s hungry for a spot on the NHL roster. Following the call up, it will be up to Drouin to prove he belongs in the NHL on a full-time basis.
In Drouin’s 10 games since returning to the AHL, he has scored nine goals and 10 points, with five of his tallies coming with the extra man. And the power play is one area where Drouin can really make his impact felt if he’s given the minutes.
All season, the Lightning power play has been among the league’s worst. Through 80 games, Tampa Bay’s power play is converting at a 16.1 percent clip, which makes it the 26th-ranked unit in the league. No playoff-bound team has fared worse with the man advantage and with the post-season nearing the Lightning need to find a way to get their power play clicking. Playoff rounds can be won with special teams, and the Lightning, who had the 14th-ranked power play in 2014-15, could use Drouin’s playmaking and shooting ability to give their attack a new look.
“When (the puck) gets in (Drouin’s) hands, he usually has a good look at the net to take a shot,” Crunch coach Rob Zettler told Dan D’Uva about Drouin’s ability on the power play. “And he can find some tight spaces. He put it in some tight corners a few times to score some goals.”
Drouin’s ability and effectiveness can go beyond the power play, though. Over the past two seasons, only 92 players have scored at least 1.8 points per 60 minutes of play at 5-on-5. Of those, Drouin is tied with Brendan Gallagher and Bryan Little for 68th with 1.88 points per 60 minutes. Drouin’s output puts him ahead of players such as Mark Scheifele, Alexander Steen, Jason Spezza, Bobby Ryan and Ryan Johansen. That’s good company to keep, and is statistical proof that Drouin can contribute offensively when given the chance.
Among the issues outlined in Drouin’s trade request were his usage and minutes in Tampa Bay, and Cooper will be the one controlling that in Drouin’s return to NHL action. In the 19 games Drouin played for the Lightning this season, he averaged roughly 14 minutes of ice time per game, but saw that dip below 11 minutes on two occasions. Those are fourth-line minutes for a player who can provide top-six scoring. Nothing will be given to Drouin, however, and he’ll have to earn his chance to play in the top six. The issue is going to be proving he’s deserving of those minutes to coach Jon Cooper.
The one area Drouin will have to show improvement is in his two-way game, as Cooper hasn’t felt confident with the winger on the ice. During the 2015 playoffs, Drouin was benched for all but six games and following one stint on the bench, Cooper said of Drouin that “there is more than one net in a rink.” It was an obvious comment on Drouin’s defensive play, so if Drouin can show more responsibility in his own end, there’s potential for him to earn the top-six minutes he’s seeking.
Nothing would help the Lightning or Drouin more than him having a good stretch of play, and both player and team are likely looking for the same thing. If Drouin contributes like he’s shown he can, he may increase his trade stock come season’s end and finally find a trade out of Tampa Bay. Or maybe the relationship between Drouin and the Lightning could reach a point where the two sides can overcome their differences.
At one point this season it appeared Drouin wouldn’t play in the NHL again in 2015-16. Now he’s become a potential late-season savior for the same Lightning team he walked away from only months ago. This is Drouin’s most important chance yet, and everyone will be watching to see how he responds.