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Jonathan Drouin, Slater Koekkoek, and the risk associated with undeveloped potential

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The Tampa Bay Lightning’s recent big trade and expansion draft decisions highlight some interesting questions about value.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The last week has been interesting for the Tampa Bay Lighting. They traded former third-overall pick Jonathan Drouin to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for last year’s eighth-overall pick Mikhail Sergachev. They also chose to protect veteran Braydon Coburn in the expansion draft over prospects Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin.

The Lightning fanbase was mostly upset with both decisions. The Drouin reaction was particularly visceral with even fans who are typically more measured having impassioned responses to the deal. The reaction to the expansion draft exposure list was more muted, but the fanbase is still generally opposed to the idea of not protecting one of the younger defenders. In particular, some called for the protection of Koekkoek.

But a funny thing happens if you start digging into the on-ice results for Drouin, Koekkoek, and Dotchin. They aren’t quite what one might expect based on their reputations in the fanbase. Drouin has yet to show an ability to drive play at 5v5. He’s a slight plus in shot share. He scores at about a third-line pace at 5v5. He was great on the power play this year but the team had an exceptionally high shooting percentage in those situations, which is a red flag that those results might not be sustainable. Below is high player card from hockeyviz.com, which is run by the excellent @ineffectivemath.

Using DTMAboutHeart’s Goals Above Replacement stat, Drouin keeps relatively mundane company as shown in this chart from Sean Tierney.

And finally, in my end of the year summary here at Raw Charge, I wrote the following:

Given all of that, it seems that landing one of the best D prospects of last year’s draft class in exchange for a player with Drouin’s results through 164 games would be at least breaking even if not a slight win for Tampa Bay. In fact, I feel pretty confident in saying that given all of the information available, I think GM Steve Yzerman did very well here.

Within hours of the deal, Drouin signed a six-year, 33 million dollar contract. That’s more than Nikita Kucherov makes and figures to be more than Ondrej Palat will make with his extension this summer. Giving that kind of money to someone with Drouin’s results is difficult to justify for a team in a severe cap crunch with a glut of forward talent.

So if the Lightning suspected that Drouin would demand that kind of contract or potentially consider a hold out (which wouldn’t be surprising considering his history), replacing him in the organization with another high-end prospect at a position of need seems like the best case scenario.

And Sergachev is certainly that. You can read about him here and here. He’s legitimately one of the best 18-year-old defenders in the world. Obviously, that doesn’t guarantee success in the NHL, but all signs are positive to this point in his development.

All of this is to say that the Lightning did a great job of making the best of a difficult situation on Thursday, June 15th, 2017. BUT...and I’m sure you knew there was a “but” coming, that doesn’t necessarily mean they made great decisions leading up to Thursday, June 15th, 2017.

If you want to find fault with the organization for the Drouin trade, you won’t find it last week. You have to find it in the three years leading up to the trade. Despite clearly being a creative genius with the puck, Drouin has never played on a consistent line with other players who share his vision and talent at the NHL level. In an ideal world, Drouin would be on a line with finishers and/or playmakers who could take advantage of the opportunities he creates. That’s never been the case in Tampa. Instead, he’s been mostly in the middle six with players like Alex Killorn, Valtteri Filppula, and Brian Boyle.

And that’s why even though he’s played 164 games, most fans still feel like we aren’t sure exactly what Drouin is. It’s why I called for him to get some time on a pure skill line in my write-up above. He still feels like a prospect. He still feels unknown. He still feels like potential. And that’s on the organization.

Letting a player like Drouin play so many minutes in Tampa without putting him in a position to thrive certainly seems like an error from the outside. The injuries this year made that difficult, but there were opportunities to play him with Nikita Kucherov more than they did. They also had plenty of chances in the previous two years. Maybe if they’d taken advantage of that, they would’ve seen something that made them more willing to negotiate a bigger contract. But they didn’t and so here we are with a trade that has huge boom/bust potential for both teams.

Both of these players could become one of the top 20-30 players at their position in the NHL. If one does reach that ceiling and the other falls far short of it, this could end up being one of those trades that people talk about for the next 30 years. But the unique thing here is that it could happen to either team. Both players represent top-of-the-league potential, but with a great degree of uncertainty.

This brings us back to Koekkoek. In some ways, his development parallels Drouin’s but without the same intense degree of scrutiny. He’s also a skilled player who has seen limited opportunity to showcase his abilities. He spent most of last season stuck in Syracuse after being demoted mid-season as a combination of injuries and waiver issues made it difficult for the Lightning to get him back to Tampa.

Exposing him to the draft seems like a risk but again, the risk is hard to gauge. He’s only played 41 games and the results haven’t been particularly exciting. Here is his player card from @ineffectivemath at hockeyviz.com

And so we arrive back at the same place as we just were with Drouin. We have a first-round draft pick who is still a relative unknown at age 22. Choosing to protect him over Coburn who was by far the third best defender on the team last year is difficult to justify. But if the organization had done a better job of developing Koekkoek, maybe we would have a better idea of what kind of player he is and this decision would be easier.

Given the information we have, I find it difficult to criticize the Drouin trade or protecting Coburn over Koekkoek. I just wish we had better information. Drouin and Koekkoek could both end up being all-stars on different teams and the Lightning might regret losing them. Or they could end up being much less than that and the Lightning might look back on this as a summer of good decisions.

By not providing their young players optimal opportunities to develop and thrive, the Lightning have increased the risk associated with their decisions this summer. Whether or not that risk ends in bad outcomes is still to be determined.

Poll

How will Lightning fans remember the summer of 2017

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    The summer we lost Drouin
    (87 votes)
  • 59%
    The summer we landed Sergachev
    (167 votes)
  • 9%
    Just another summer
    (27 votes)
281 votes total Vote Now