Jonathan Drouin and the problem of depth
Jonathan Drouin might be the best hockey prospect on planet Earth. But how does Steve Yzerman and Jon Cooper fit the 19 year-old forward into the NHL lineup?
If given only one word with which to summarize Steve Yzerman's tenure as the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, it would undoubtedly be "depth".
His on-record quotes just after he was hired often speak to the concept of building organizational depth.
From a Pierre LeBrun piece:
"The goal is going to be to draft talent, and skill, just like the Red Wings have done," Yzerman said. "You have to build through the draft."
And from a similar piece by Kevin Allen:
"There is no easy fix. I don't sit up here with the notion that there is a magic wand I can wave and make changes and we're a Stanley Cup contender. I plan on making the Lightning better for the upcoming season, but the long-term goal is to make this team a perennial contender."
Scouting, drafting, development, coaching. All overhauled under Yzerman's watch. It's now 2014, and the plan -- to build and re-build organizational depth at all positions slowly over time -- is actualizing at the NHL level.
Undrafted free agent center Tyler Johnson and 7th round pick Ondrej Palat were co-finalists for the Calder Trophy this past season in the NHL. 3rd round pick Radko Gudas was a top-4 defenseman and contributing NHLer as a 22 year old. Richard Panik, Nikita Kucherov, J.T. Brown, Andrej Sustr, Cody Kunyk, Brett Connolly, Vladislav Namestnikov, Cedric Paquette, and Kristers Gudlevskis -- all Yzerman selections or signees -- have at least had a cup of coffee in the NHL. Many are regular contributors in the NHL or are still ascending the organizational ranks.
To call the Yzerman era one of unprecedented depth in the Lightning organization is no overstatement.
But there's a problem. A minor problem. A good problem, even. One indicative of the health and strength of the organization as a whole.
Step One: Build depth. Mission accomplished. Now what?
Two years ago, after a forgettable lockout-shortened season, the Lightning held the dubious honor of selecting third overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. That meant a chance at a potentially transcendent player that would be available by virtue of process of elimination -- one of Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon, or Jonathan Drouin had to be available when pick number three rolled around.
When the Florida Panthers went "off-board" for Aleksandr Barkov at 2nd overall, the Lightning nabbed electric forward and Quebec-league phenom Jonathan Drouin instead of the "safer" (and NHL need-filling) defenseman in Jones.
Of the 30 first-round picks in 2013, eight appeared in an NHL game. Six of them appeared in more than 50 games, including five of the top-6 picks and seven out of the top 10.
But Jonathan Drouin didn't make the Lightning out of camp. And it wasn't because he wasn't good enough; it was because other guys were just better. Brett Connolly arguably had the best showing in camp and in preseason games and he was sent to the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL. Richard Panik, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat made the big club as a line. Good players were going to get cut no matter what happened. There are only so many spots open on the roster each year. That's what happens when you build so much depth -- eventually it bottlenecks somewhere. Something has to give.
But slow, measured, and patient development isn't something Yzerman only gives lip service to:
"We just feel he's better served by playing another year of junior hockey. I don't want him being in and out of the lineup. I don't want him playing limited minutes. Our assessment was he's better off playing another year of junior hockey, hopefully playing for Canada at the world junior championships and developing there."
On what Drouin needs to improve: "Getting adjusted to the NHL pace, playing the game at an NHL speed. For him, it's going to happen in time. Our biggest concern was ice time. Where is he going to play? Who is he going to play with? The way we're set up up front, he's not going to get the minutes we want him to play, so it's best he goes back to junior."
Drouin responded by removing the 'potentially' modifier from the aforementioned 'potentially transcendent' label. He scored an absurd 108 points in just 46 games with the Halifax Mooseheads (2.35 points/game) and then actually scored more in the playoffs, with 41 points in only 16 games (2.56 points/game). And he did it all as a center, learning to take draws and play a more balanced two-way game.
There's no such thing as a "sure thing" when projecting NHL prospects. But Jonathan Drouin is as close as it comes.
That's why expecting that he'll stick with the big club this time around is confidence, not arrogance.
Removing those reasons that Yzerman cited a year ago for sending Drouin back to Halifax -- the need for minutes, for ice time, adjusting to the NHL pace -- still doesn't remove the real obstacle to Drouin in the NHL full-time.
Where does Jonathan Drouin fit in the lineup?
He's mostly played left wing in his three-year junior career, and had heaps of success creating offense from the outside.
Drouin won't be 20 by January 1, 2015, so the AHL is out of the question. Looking forward to the 2014-15 NHL season, left wing would probably make the most sense for a 19-year old rookie adjusting to the grind of a professional schedule on the fly. But consider the waiver-ineligible and one-way players already on the roster that play the left side: Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn are both near-locks for a top-6 LW slot, and the team recently signed left wing Brenden Morrow to a one-year deal. Will Morrow play 4th line minutes? Is a 3rd line role appropriate for Drouin?
Complicating matters, there's also this:
"We just think he's a centerman," Yzerman said. "I know he can play the wing, I'm not worried about it, but he had played center before going to Halifax (Quebec Major Junior). We just decided here to put him there. We can switch him back to the wing at any point, but for now we want to watch him in the middle."
Drouin played his third year of junior hockey primarily at center, and improved his overall game without sacrificing any offense. But the issue, again, is depth. Where does Drouin fit?
"We're taking a look," Cooper said. "Maybe the fit for us in our organization is the wing, maybe it's at center. We're giving him a look in both spots just to see where he can fit."
Maybe the fit is at center -- but that position isn't any thinner than left wing. Steven Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula, Tyler Johnson, and Brian Boyle look to form the Lightning's main center group. Cedric Paquette also looks like he could be in the NHL plans moving forward after finishing the regular season with the Bolts and playing all four playoff games in the four-game sweep at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. There's also 21-year old Vladislav Namestnikov, who's likely slotted for top-line duties in the AHL but shouldn't be overlooked as a dark horse for, at the very least, spot NHL duty in the middle.
Moving centers to the wing is always an option -- Filppula's done it at the NHL level over an extended period and both Stamkos and Johnson have been used on the right side by Jon Cooper.
Ultimately, it's near impossible to imagine a 19-year old Drouin, more driven than ever to stick in the NHL, playing himself out of a spot on the opening-night roster. That's likely what he'd have to do to find himself back in Halifax once again.
He's almost certainly going to be on the team. Which means someone else might not be. Nikita Kucherov is the only NHL forward on the roster that's still waiver-exempt -- Richard Panik and Brett Connolly both become waiver-eligible this year -- and there's a non-zero chance Kucherov becomes a casualty of the numbers game to keep Drouin up and to keep from losing Connolly or Panik on waivers, which is what it'd require to send them down to the AHL.
Ultimately, there's too many top-9 forwards competing for the twelve (or eleven) forward spots available. Consider that guys like Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan, and Valtteri Filppula are already locked into their spots and the number of positions actually up for grabs at camp dwindles even further.
More likely than not, a forward is going to be sent down or played in a limited role. A trade isn't entirely out of the question. Depth rears it's ugly head. It's not a bad problem to have, but it's one Yzerman and Cooper will have to deal with nonetheless.