BY BROOKS ROLAND
Jonathan Drouin’s up-and-down NHL career has taken another dramatic turn. And it appears the 20-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning forward wants a fresh start somewhere else.
Just one day after being demoted to Syracuse of the AHL, Drouin’s agent, Allan Walsh, released a statement to the media that he formally requested a trade on behalf of his client in November. The statement said:
“On behalf of Jonathan Drouin, I formally requested a trade from the Tampa Bay Lightning back in November. We have not said one word about this untenable situation publicly until today. It’s in everyone’s best interests that Jonathan be allowed to move on and play hockey.
Let’s be clear: Jonathan loves playing for the fans in Tampa, and he loves his teammates and many people within the Lightning organization have treated him well. It was his sincere intention to play in Tampa for many years.”
Taking this request public is a bold move by Walsh, especially when Drouin still has a year left on his entry-level contract and is due to become a restricted free agent in 2017, meaning the Bolts have all of the leverage. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman is under no pressure to deal his talented young forward, and in response to Walsh’s statement, Yzerman released an official statement of his own on Sunday:
“We acknowledge, via communication from his agent, Jonathan Drouin’s request to be traded. Moving forward, my sole intention is to act in the best interest of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey club. In the meantime, Jonathan has been assigned to our American Hockey League affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, and we expect him to report for practice with the rest of his teammates this Tuesday morning.”
When speaking to the media on Saturday, Yzerman had nothing but praise for Drouin, referring to him as “a tremendous young talent,’’ but added that he “needs to stay healthy, get in the lineup and show what he can do. He had a good start to the season, but he’s just missed a lot of games with minor injury to this point and just needs to play.”
“Jonathan expressed to me that he understands the reasons for it,” Yzerman said. “We want our players to succeed, to play well and put them in the best position to succeed, and I believe that this helps that.’’
Judging from the back-and-forth through the media between Walsh and Yzerman, it’s pretty obvious that Yzerman holds all of the leverage and he knows it. If he doesn’t want to trade Drouin, he doesn’t have to. If he does, he can patiently test the market to see what a trade for Drouin could fetch in return, although that always runs the risk of blowing up in the Lightning’s face if Drouin were to blossom into a star elsewhere. As for Walsh, this isn’t the first time he’s publicly made waves for a client. He once lobbied on Twitter for Jaroslav Halak, a client of his who was a goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens at the time, to be the starter over Carey Price. Nowadays, nobody in their right mind would do that, as Price is one of the best goalies in the world. But at the time, Price hadn’t reached the level he’s at now, as he and Halak were still battling for the starting gig in Montreal. Walsh also heavily criticized the Minnesota Wild for not giving Petr Sykora, another of his clients, the ice time and role they supposedly promised. In December 2011, Walsh client Derick Brassard, who was playing for the Columbus Blue Jackets at the time, was a healthy scratch seven times in the span of 10 games. While Brassard didn’t publicly make his feelings known, Walsh had no reservations about airing his grievances over that situation, releasing the following statement that blasted then-Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel:
“While I have tremendous respect for (general manager) Scott Howson and the rest of Columbus’ management team, the situation regarding Derick Brassard has become untenable. The coach has a history of burying players and using them as scapegoats to mask his own lack of success on the ice. Derick has been singled out, almost from the very beginning of the season, to be the fall guy in case things don’t go well. The Columbus organization cares about Derick and has been good to him, but at some point, one has to say, enough is enough.”
Walsh sure loves using the word “untenable” when referring to an unfavorable situation for a client. Which brings us to the current situation with Drouin. While I have to admire Walsh’s willingness to go to bat for his clients, is demanding a trade really the best move for Jonathan Drouin? As I mentioned earlier, he’s chained to the Lightning until the summer of 2017, and even then, he’s a restricted free agent, so he’s not exactly free to just sign with whoever he wants. Drouin has no leverage in that situation, and his play this season has also given him no leverage.
He’s missed 19 games due to nagging injuries, and has two goals and 6 assists in the 19 games that he has taken part in. Drouin posted six points in the first five games he played in this year, but in the 14 games he’s taken part in since then, he’s only picked up two points. In October, he was paired up with Steven Stamkos and looked like he was finally turning a corner. However, the injuries, lack of production, and inability to contribute at both ends of the ice have not helped his cause. Last season, his usage was criticized by some, as he played mostly fourth-line minutes and only dressed for six playoff games. However, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said that Drouin had to improve his two-way play, and with the Bolts marching to the Stanley Cup Final, he might have had a point in sitting Drouin for the majority of that playoff run.
This was supposed to be the year that Drouin took that next step towards being a star in the NHL. When he was taken with the third overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, fans and pundits alike had visions of Drouin setting up Steven Stamkos for years to come. However, he was sent back to the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL for additional seasoning before being in camp for the Lightning last season. Unfortunately for Drouin, a fractured thumb forced him to miss camp, putting him behind in his development and forcing him to play catch-up. He played 70 games in his rookie season, finishing with 4 goals and 28 assists. For the situation he was in, he was still reasonably productive and it looked like the team was bringing him along slowly because thanks to their forward depth, they could afford to.
However, the injuries and inability to put together a solid two-way game have been Drouin’s downfall this season. With the way the NHL is nowadays, coaches value players that can contribute at both ends of the ice. Unless you’re an elite superstar, you’re expected to play a solid two-way game. Even Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin, two of the best goal-scorers in the league over the last decade, have improved their defensive play despite not being confused for Selke Trophy candidates. Jon Cooper’s system relies on his forwards being able to play at both ends. Look at some of the other forwards on the team or no longer around that have paid their dues by playing fourth-line, part-time minutes in the NHL before finally settling into a permanent role with the big club by being able to play two-way hockey.
Nikita Kucherov, Vlad Namestnikov, and even Brett Connolly are good examples to follow here. Like Drouin, Connolly was a top-10 pick in his draft class (2010). Like Drouin, he went back to his junior team for a season before making the Lightning roster in 2011-12. Like Drouin, he also didn’t play a lot of top-line minutes, finishing with four goals and 11 assists in 68 games. Unlike Drouin, he spent the majority of the next two seasons in Syracuse before returning to Tampa Bay’s lineup for good in 2014-15, where he played on the bottom two lines before being traded at the trade deadline. Connolly’s role had shifted because he didn’t quite develop at the rate of the Lightning’s other young forwards, but you never heard a peep out of the guy. He adapted from his role as a pure goal-scorer and we never heard a peep from him about it.
Kucherov was a second-round pick in 2011 who, like Drouin, struggled at times to adapt to the NHL while being a healthy scratch for many games. He was a dynamic offensive player that had to learn how to play at both ends of the rink as well as having to learn the English language. Kucherov learned from the experiences of his rookie season and improved his play on the defensive side, which allowed his offensive game to blossom. You could make a strong case for him being the Lightning’s MVP so far this season.
Namestnikov was a first-round pick from 2011 who also played one more year of junior before joining Syracuse for a couple of years. Last season was his first extensive action in a Lightning uniform, playing 43 games while also being a healthy scratch at times and seeing more extensive action in the AHL at other times. He also learned the value of playing a solid two-way game, and after making the Lightning’s roster out of training camp, he has proven that he’s here to stay, being able to play any forward position on any of the team’s four lines without any complaint.
Honestly, I think Jonathan Drouin’s pride is a little hurt right now. Being a top-3 pick and a guy that projected to be Stamkos’s setup man for many years to come, it has to come as a bit of a blow for him to go from playing on a line with Stamkos for the first month of the season to being on the bottom two lines after dealing with injuries. He’s a tremendously skilled player whose offensive ceiling is incredibly high, but he’s also going to have to swallow his pride and use the plentiful ice time that he’ll get from Syracuse to better his game at both ends of the rink before Yzerman decides what’s going to happen.
This situation certainly has to make you wonder if the relationship between the Lightning and Drouin is irreparably damaged, and it will be a delicate situation for Yzerman to handle in the coming weeks, and maybe months. This isn’t like the Marty St. Louis trade demand where an aging player was upset about being passed over for the Olympics. Drouin is only a couple of months away from turning 21, and he’s a guy that could be an incredibly productive top-6 forward. Not only does Yzerman have to deal with Stamkos’s contract situation, but he now has this hanging over his head, and the future of the Lightning could be hanging in the balance.
If you ask me, I don’t think Yzerman should trade Drouin unless his attitude becomes so toxic that he can’t be kept around. Since the team has all the leverage, I think it would be in the interest of all parties involved to have a meeting and hammer out their differences. Drouin is going to have to take this as a wake-up call and use this as motivation to become a more well-rounded player that can be relied upon. Best-case scenario, Drouin takes advantage of the increased ice time in Syracuse, his agent stays silent, and he gets recalled later this season and finally earns his keep at the NHL level. Worst-case scenario, Tampa Bay is dealing with a situation like Tyler Seguin in Boston. Seguin was a high first-round pick by Boston in 2010 who didn’t quite put it all together, got traded to Dallas, and turned into a superstar. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think the Lightning want to see that happen unless Yzerman has no other choice but to make a trade.
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