Top 25 Under 25: #8 Jonathan Drouin

Jeff Griffith-USA TODAY Sports

The third overall pick from the 2013 NHL Entry Draft was a preseason Calder favorite before being sent back to the QMJHL due to the Tampa Bay Lightning's tremendous system forward depth.

He was everyone's trendy Calder pick in the preseason, on the back of a flashy, exciting Memorial Cup win alongside his teammate and friend, Nathan MacKinnon.

The prospect of 18-year old Jonathan Drouin making the Tampa Bay Lightning straight out of the draft and earning top line duties with Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos was a tanalizing one. It was a fairly common prediction at the time, and one that seemed to make lot of sense.

Unfortunately, it didn't come to fruition. Not as a criticism necessarily of Drouin, but moreso as a testament to the tremendous forward depth built into the system over the last three years by GM Steve Yzerman. So Drouin was returned to the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL after a mostly disappointing training camp and preseason, where he was clearly outplayed by other, more experienced Lightning prospects, like the trio that made the big club (Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat) and one that did not (Brett Connolly).

Here is how the panel ranked Drouin:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Clark Brooks Clare Austin Patti McDonald Mike Gallimore
8 10 9 6 9 3

Unsurprisingly, Mike Gallimore of Bolt Prospects rated Drouin the highest, which can most likely be attributed to the Raw Charge staff's decision to weigh professional North American experience a little bit more than Gallimore did. That said, there is very little doubt that Drouin is the highest-ceiling player in the Lightning system right now, with legitimate superstar, point-per-game potential in the NHL.

The problem is, when does he get here?

As just an 18-year old this year, he'll be in the exact same situation next year at 19-years old. His only options as a player will be on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster, or back to juniors for another season. While there is very little evidence to suggest that playing too long in a junior league can harm a young player's development, his performance in Halifax so far this year confirms what many have long been saying -- the kid is just way too good for that league, and he's making the Raw Charge staff look silly for rating him so low.

Check out his highlight reel from a November 22 win over Arcadie-Bathurst Titan:

If being returned to juniors did anything but motivate Drouin, I'd be surprised what with that way he's been scoring points in large, large bunches. The tear he's on right now drives home that, at the moment, he's a man among boys:

At the time he was drafted, Drouin was a very highly-rated offensive winger. He got only small amounts of criticism for his defensive play, position alongside MacKinnon, and size, but he was certainly a top-5 talent scoring nearly two points per game in the QMJHL. That made his closest player comparables a list of names that included John Tavares, Nazem Kadri, Patrick Kane, Jason Spezza, and Pat LaFontaine. Players that score two points per game in a junior league are exceedingly rare, and when a player does, it's typically a sign of an elite offensive talent. Even retaining just 40% of his scoring jumping to the NHL would put him somewhere in the .80-.90 points per game area -- which is still an elite, top-line, 70-75 point player.

So that's what the projection looked like in spring. How's it look now, with Drouin still dominating his competition? Over the aforementiond 12-game streak, with Drouin scoring 36 points -- he is now scoring at a three point per game pace, which is absurdly good. Even more impressive is that Drouin is now doing all of this at the center ice position, something the Lightning set in motion in training camp. He's still scoring at his usual ridiculous rate, but he's also taking faceoffs and succeeding with the additional defensive responsibility.

So why, then, didn't Drouin make the team in September? And why don't the Lightning call him up now, with their top offensive player on the shelf indefinitely?

To answer the first question, you just have to look at his performance in training camp. Head coach Jon Cooper tried him at a few different spots in camp and in preseason games, but the points weren't there and he looked out-of-sync and not-quite-ready for the pace of the NHL game. He was clearly outplayed by other forwards on the organizational depth chart, including one that didn't even make the big club. There was no way of knowing how much better he'd look in just a few short months, but again, that's against junior-level competition.

Our Managing Editor John Fontana threw some cold water on the Drouin situation earlier this month:

Potential shown in junior hockey is what people go on with Jonathan Drouin, and that's why he's got a top-10 ranking on our first "Top 25 Under 25" list... Expectations and projections compounded together put him high on just about any prospect list. Yet expectations for Drouin's immediate future and contribution were off the board from the start, in my humble opinion. Projecting Drouin to have first-line minutes with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis and be carried by the Lightning all season long neglected to remember which organization he had just joined, and the track record of said-organization in recent years of not rushing prospects.

At the time we announced plans for the "Top 25 Under 25" series, there had even been remarks that Jon Drouin was #3 in the organization among players under 25... And that opinion seems far, far too lofty and too dismissive of the reality of the moment.

The reality is the depth and talent level of the forwards under the age of 25 years of age and already in the Tampa Bay system; those who have already not only gone pro but earned slots on the Lightning roster and are contributing. Potential, projections and expectations had Drouin outright leaping over too many players no matter what.

But besides rookie scoring-wing, what hole did he fill on the Lightning roster immediately?

That's where expectations for this season, and where Drouin stands right now, should have stopped dead in there tracks. While Drouin would be playing in the NHL right now on any number of struggling teams, Tampa Bay was not struggling last season due to lack of offense. And the holes to fill on the Bolts roster were more for role-players than for a top-line scorer.

While Nathan Mackinnon, Seth Jones, Aleksander Barkov, Sean Monahan and others from the draft class of 2013 have immediately stepped in on rosters and contributed, Jonathan Drouin has been sent back to Halifax for a more deliberate development; one that may convert the left wing into a center. It's one that doesn't necessarily teach him something new (it's junior level challenges once again), but it does keep him in his natural role as a top line forward, and doesn't throw him to the wolves, out of position and learning on the fly in limited minutes.

If we ranked the Top 25 Under 25 on expectations and projections alone, Drouin would have been boosted into the top three, or perhaps displaced Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos as the top young players in the organization. That'd have been foolish, but that's how high his stock was flying before the season. We'll see where he fits in with the club in due time. Right now, it's time for him to work on his game and to aim for repeating as Memorial Cup champion.

It's not a question of Drouin's skill set. It never was when I doubted he'd make the team. It's who drafted him and how careful and deliberate they are with making young players the best they can be. That's why Drouin's not rated higher right now, but he will be. He'll earn it, too.

As for the second question, it's been answered before, but the short response is that he can only be recalled now in the event of an emergency, if the organization has no other options and must recall him in order to remain roster compliant. In short, it's almost certainly not going to happen this year, and it probably shouldn't. The preseason decision slides his entry-level contract a year, giving them a bigger, stronger, more defensively sound centerman version of Drouin for three years on an entry level salary starting in 2014-2015, should he make the team.

I expect he will.

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