Jonathan Drouin's status as a super-prospect is well-known around NHL circles.
After being drafted third overall in 2013 by the Tampa Bay Lightning, expectations were sky-high that he'd step right into the NHL lineup and tear the league up alongside top-liners Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. Organizational depth at forward last year was the only thing that prevented that from happening, as Drouin was fine in camp but was pretty clearly outplayed by guys who made the club like Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat and even one who didn't in Brett Connolly.
That gave Drouin an extra year in the QMJHL where he put up ridiculous point totals even as she shifted from left wing to center. He's a little stronger and a year older and wiser with a bit more polish to his two-way game after a year spent as "the guy" for Halifax with Nathan MacKinnon with the Colorado Avalanche in the NHL.
Extra development time helped him to earn even more praise, particularly from NHL.com, who ranked him the top prospect overall in the NHL and the #1 rookie for fantasy hockey this year.
Here's how the panel ranked Drouin:
|Kyle Alexander||John Fontana||Clare Austin||Mike Gallimore||Clark Brooks|
Last Year's Rank: 8
While his talent and skill have been well documented, there are still some who question his NHL-readiness, particularly after his showing at the rookie tournament in Nashville with prospects from the Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, and Boston Bruins.
You may have noticed that I didn't write anything about him during the four-team rookie camp in Nashville last weekend. That's because he wasn't very noticeable and certainly not impressive, especially to the level expected by a top three draft pick.
Drouin, who is being highly touted as NHL-ready by many, doesn't seem to be ready for the jump to the big leagues. While he has shown flashes of brilliance in both games for the Lightning, he wasn't overly impressive in his first five periods. In the third period and overtime in game two, he dialed things up a bit and set up the game-winning assist to Curran in overtime.
Of course, that might be reading a little too much into a rookie tournament where the Lightning contingent had two practices to prepare, not to mention Drouin playing left wing for the first time in over a year with new teammates and a coach he doesn't know. He still displayed the offensive creativity he's known for and finished the tournament with 2 points in 3 games; plus, the Lightning definitely made an effort to give more ice time to bubble guys and invitees to see what they could do with competitive game action.
Ultimately, judging a players' NHL readiness, potential, or durability based on a handful of glorified scrimmages just seems shortsighted.
Speculation of Drouin's spot on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster has been popular topic in the Boltosphere this offseason, as the bloggers and beat writers attempt to predict where the phenomenal young talent will fit into the stacked forward group the Lightning will employ this year.
The first decision is what position to play him at: center or wing? It's important to keep in mind he'll be a 19-year old rookie adjusting to the pace and rigor of the NHL game with zero professional experience under his belt. So while Steve Yzerman has gone on record as "seeing Drouin as a center", and he played all of last season in the QMJHL with the Halifax Mooseheads in the center of the ice, it's probably safer and easier to start him off on left wing. That also eventually gives you the option many have drooled about: combining the slick puckhandling, neutral zone prowess, and playmaking ability of Drouin with the elite finishing ability of Steven Stamkos.
Of course, training camp has thrown a bit of wrench in all that -- Drouin is currently nursing an upper-body injury sustained at camp and missed his group session today. He had been skating on the left side with Tyler Johnson and Richard Panik; Yanni Gourde skated in his place today. The injury isn't serious, per the team, but if it holds him out of some drills, scrimmages, and even pre-season games, that brings questions of his durability up again and also clouds his spot in the lineup even further with less time to see his chemistry with other forwards.
Previously, Jon Cooper had made "managing expectations" a key part of his off- and pre-season message, so expecting 18 minutes a night on a top line or a big role as a third-line center (like Tyler Johnson a season ago) just seems incongruent with the organization's modus operandi and Jon Cooper's style as a coach. But sending him back to Halifax -- again -- also seems entirely out of the question. It will be Cooper's task to use him enough to maximize his offensive potential while also allowing for the types of mistakes 19-year olds with no pro experience are prone to make.