It’s the summer of 2014 in Tampa and it’s hard to not get excited as a Lightning fan. While daily thunderstorms pummel the Bay area, for the first time in as long as I can remember, the Bolts are in the news as a favored team. Hell, they’re in the news, period! NHL Network and TSN are actually talking about the team positively?!? After I pinched myself a few times, the smile hasn’t wiped away. Part of that has to do with my attending Development Camp this past weekend where not only were the 2014 draft picks on display, but also prospects that are knocking on Yzerman’s door for a call-up. In particular, 19-year-old Jonathan Drouin. A storms a brewin’.
While everyone at the camp seemed to know how to play the game of hockey rather well, not one soul in the building would say that Drouin didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. The poise and confidence level were far greater than his first camp invite back in 2013, and he filled out the pads a little better with added muscle. From skating, stick-handling, and play-making, Drouin did not disappoint the hundreds of Lightning fans in attendance or the ones wearing Malone, Purcell, and St. Louis jerseys.
Since being drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning 3rd overall in the 2013 Entry Draft, Drouin has done nothing but get better as a player. After playing five preseason games with the big club, it was determined that there were areas he could improve before his services would be required. Like a fine wine, he needed some time to ferment to improve upon what was already pretty good.
Back at Halifax, the young Drouin was visibly discouraged from his unexpected return to the club. He just watched his best buddy and former Mooseheads linemate, Nathan MacKinnon, get the call from Colorado – why wasn’t he enjoying the same spoils? According to Yzerman and Director of Player Development, Stacy Roest, this organization is very particular on how it likes to develop its players. They saw no need to rush that with him because it never helps the player to throw them to the wolves if it can be avoided. In other words, this organization is always thinking for the future.
With players like Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson boiling over from the AHL pot, the roster only has so many spots to fill. Having those two players at their peak of development, they were awarded the slots – answering back with dual Calder Trophy nominations for finishing second and third in rookie points, respectively.
The discouraged Drouin wasn’t taxed by the decision for long. A call from Steve Yzerman was all the motivation he needed to get back into form and advance his development. He began to play for the Mooseheads, not NHL glory, and found ways to improve his team and new linemates. It was suggested that he improve his defensive game by shifting from wing to center – he made the transition well. His relatively smallish frame needed some meat packed on – he added over 15lbs of muscle. The results were an even better season than the one that rewarded him a lock as a Top-3 pick. He’s stronger, faster, smarter, and more mature than ever.
Let’s try to remember that at the time of the 2013 draft, there was much debate on who would go 1st overall. But, there was little debate on who had better hockey sense or was better at seeing the game. Unlike his friend MacKinnon who flourishes when surrounded by skilled players, Drouin was always seen as someone who makes players around him better. Case in point? Not taking anything away from Nikolaj Ehlers, but he helped show the potential of the young player – skyrocketing his player ranking. You also don’t record 79 assists in 46 games if you’re not able to capitalize on opportunities you create for other players. (Think bait and hook.) Can you imagine that tactic in play with a sneaky scorer like Stammer? This is where the added weight will help as he inevitably gets tossed around like a rag doll while embarrassing players with his Jergens hands.
So here we are a few days after the conclusion of Development Camp and unlike last year, the Lightning currently have a couple holes in the roster. These are presumably going to be filled by Drouin and maybe, HOPEFULLY Connolly as well. The coaching staff have already eluded to Jonathan playing on 3rd line to start off as he gets adjusted, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him moved up as he adjusts to the new ice time demands. (Talk about depth at forward! Stamkos, Drouin, Filppula, Callahan, Palat, Johnson, Killorn, Connolly, Kucherov, Brown and Boyle…should be interesting.)
While predicting weather may be as futile as speculating the success of a hockey prospect, it’s clear to see the recipe for a big storm on the radar. Drouin shouldn’t be viewed as someone to score 60 goals, but dishing them out to players like Stamkos is his business, and could shake up the league. The question on everyone’s mind is “when will he be on a line with Stamkos?” Let’s hope that question is answered early in October. I’m confident that if he makes the adjustment well, the Lighting could have a new dynamic duo on its hands once again. For the next couple months, all I’ll be thinking about is their potential for on-ice chemistry. Other teams will be thinking ‘God help us, all.’