Jonathan Drouin was sent back to junior three months after being drafted third overall in 2013, it raised the eyebrows of many. And nowhere were eyebrows higher than in the THN office, where staffers had almost unanimously predicted him to be that season’s Calder winner. After all, he was the perfect fit alongside superstar Steven Stamkos. But Tampa’s braintrust had a plan.
The Lightning knew they had an impact player on their hands, but they also were under no illusions as to the timeline needed to develop him into an effective, thriving NHLer. And so, where some organizations – we’re looking at you, Edmonton – would have dropped Drouin into the league immediately, Bolts GM Steve Yzerman saw a better route: a return to major junior and the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads for Drouin’s third year there.
The decision led to think pieces casting doubt on its savviness. Were the Lightning destroying Drouin’s confidence (or boring him to tears) by shuttling him to a level he’d already dominated? As it turns out, no. Drouin’s circumstances were unique and unfortunate: he broke his foot in the summer of 2013 and entered his first training camp having not skated the month of August, throwing off his timing and conditioning. And given that Drouin isn’t an imposing specimen at 5-foot-11 and 186 pounds, to simply hand him an NHL roster spot then would’ve been throwing him to wolves to have his bones and self esteem picked clean. But – and this is important – Yzerman’s management team also didn’t send Drouin into a communications abyss when they returned him to Halifax. Former NHLer and now Lightning director of player development
Stacy Roest flew there regularly and sent texts to Drouin on a daily basis. Roest’s job was to let the young man know he hadn’t been forgotten, to teach and offer advice to prepare him for the NHL level when the call came. The two developed a bond and trust that allowed the player to focus on his process, and that, combined with Drouin’s natural maturity, ensured his confidence didn’t wane. “It was fantastic how many times they came to see me in Halifax,” Drouin said. “Stacy was here every two or three weeks, and I talked to Steve a lot that year. It’s great to see they’re watching you and helping you get better.” Added Roest: “It takes time and it is a process. The biggest thing is keeping their confidence. Because now, for the first time in their career, there’s some stuff not working and they have to really battle through. But Jonathan’s a great kid, a real student of the game who wants to learn.” Drouin, 19, faced another challenge at the start of this season when he fractured his thumb in training camp and missed the first five games. Once again, he’s had to play catch-up with colleagues and try making the jump on a stacked squad that’s contending for a Stanley Cup. So although he’d only scored twice in 35 games, the fact he had 16 assists while playing fourth-line minutes is encouraging. You can’t underestimate what missing camp can do. Yet Drouin is, slowly, pulling back with the pack. “It is a very important component of a player’s season,” said assistant GM Julien BriseBois. “Did it impact the start of his season? Obviously, it did. I don’t know how it could not have. But he can do things on the ice not many players can. That’s why he’s able, as a 19-year-old, to help us win at the NHL level. There’s only a handful of players around the league in that situation. For us, what matters most is, can he help us win? And the answer right now is, yes, he can.” The lesson, when appraising Drouin or any other young NHL talent: dismiss your fast-food expectations. These are complex human athletes, not microwaveable chimichangas. The cooking time with young stars takes much longer than any drive-thru process we’ve become accustomed to in other aspects of our lives. An NHL star isn’t just made by the player himself, but by himself and his development team. If you don’t have a good marriage between those groups, it won’t matter how much skill any youngster has. In that sense, although Drouin’s injury luck has been awful, he’s one of the luckiest young talents around. “Tampa has been unbelievable and Steve Yzerman deserves credit not just for talk and not just for show, but for committing the time, effort and resources to Jonathan for everything he’s needed,” said Drouin’s agent Allan Walsh. “When you have a player situated like Jonathan, it’s very important to manage expectations and Tampa has been diligent in seeking to do so. Because they look around the league and see examples of what can happen if you don’t.”
This feature appears in the Feb. 16 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.