Jonathan Drouin has given up on the Tampa Bay Lightning and that decision appears to have been made well before the news broke of his trade request. It’s easy to say he should suck it up and pay his dues, and that GM Steve Yzerman has a habit of letting his players develop in the AHL. But is that really true, and if so, was Drouin treated any differently? I’ll argue that in this special case, Yzerman drifted away from his patterns and the experiment backfired.
First we have to establish whether any pattern does exist. I’ve looked at all the Lightning draft picks in the 4th round or higher between 2010 (the year Yzerman joined Tampa) and 2013 (the year Drouin was drafted).
In 2010 Tampa Bay drafted one 1st rounder, winger Brett Connolly at 6th overall. After being sent down for one season in the WHL, he was assigned to the AHL during the 2012-2013 lockout. He was recalled for 5 games in April, then reassigned to the AHL. In March 2015 he was traded to Boston after appearing in just 139 NHL games for the Lightning.
Brock Beukeboom was selected in the third round of 2010, and without ever playing a game, was traded in February 2011 in the deal that brought in Eric Brewer.
Radko Gudas, also a third rounder,
was assigned to the AHL and wasn’t recalled until March 2013. His first full season was 2013-2014, and after an injury requiring surgery, was traded to Philadelphia in 2015.
Adem Janosik was the final third rounder in 2010. He ended up finishing his Quebec league career before playing pro in Europe. Two fourth round picks never even made it onto Tampa’s radar, let alone their roster.
6 players drafted in the first four rounds in 2010, all 6 either sent to Major Junior and the AHL to start, only 2 ever appearing in an NHL game for the Lightning, none on the current roster.
In 2011 it was first rounder Vladislav Namestikov and second rounder Nikita Kucherov. Namestikov was assigned to the AHL during the 2012-2013 lockout and didn’t make his NHL debut until February of 2014, where he appeared in 4 games over a month span before being sent back down. The following season, 2014-2015, he stayed with the big club until December before another AHL stint(more on this later). He was finally called up for good in March of 2015 and hasn’t looked back.
Kucherov played briefly in the KHL before being sent to finish his Q league career, then spent one season in the AHL. He debuted for the Lightning in the2013-2014 season and remains on the active roster.
In both 2012 and 2013 it was more of the same, with 7 players drafted in the first four rounds all being sent down to finish out their CHL or university careers before being assigned to the AHL. In all, of the 15 picks (excluding Drouin) from the first four rounds of draft years 2010-2013, every single one of them was sent down to either the CHL or University, and any that remained Tampa property were then reassigned to the AHL. Only 3 are with the Lightning right now, and one is goaltender Andrei Vasilevsky (2012, 19th overall).
So why would Jonathan Drouin expect to be treated differently? After all, he was sent down to finish out his CHL career like the others. Most of you are now saying “Exactly! Why can’t he embrace the AHL like everyone else?” The answer is all about the timing.
After finishing his time with the Halifax Mooseheads, instead of being sent down to the AHL for a year or two as the 14 were before him, Drouin made the jump right to the NHL for the 2014-2015 season, only playing in two games for the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch (2G, 1A, 3 points). Instead of seeing a lot of regular ice time in the minor pro ranks like everyone else, he was pretty much alternating as a healthy scratch with Vladislav Namestikov. Remember, it wasn’t until December that Namestikov was again sent down the AHL for “more playing and development time”, freeing up a full time roster spot for Drouin in the process. Apparently, unlike 14 other prospects, they didn’t provide him with the chance to get his professional feet wet playing regular time in Syracuse. Instead, as a very young, very green rookie he was spending every other game in the press box. Then he was finally tested against seasoned veterans who had three months to make sure they were in full game shape. This was a very different introduction than the others received and pretty much set him up for failure. Oddly enough, he still managed 32 points in 70 games. Almost 0.5 points per game doesn’t seem so bad when you’re three months behind as a 19 year old. It’s even more amazing when you consider he was ranked 20th on the team in ice time! But management didn’t see it that way and in a playoff year where the Tampa Bay Lightning made the Stanley Cup Finals, Drouin dressed for just 6 games and didn’t get consistent ice time in those fixtures. Where all the other prospects were big contributors to deep playoff runs in the AHL, again Drouin spent most of his formulative rookie playoff run wearing a suit and watching like any other fan.
Still, he had all off season to prepare, more mentally than anything. I don’t know what the team told him going into this year, but I’m sure he felt like he was getting mixed messages. Again he was allowed to stay up with the Lightning instead of developing, yet in 19 games this season he was ranked only 15th in ice time per game at a measly 14:06 minutes. This was a microscopic increase from the season before, and hardly seems worth keeping a guy from playing 20:00 plus minutes a game at the AHL level. People look at his 8 points (2G, 6A) over that span as a failure. Given third line ice time, I think it’s miraculous.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have indeed treated Jonathan Drouin differently, so to use the fact they have a recent history of keeping players down in the minors to develop as a knock against him is unfair. That’s not what they did with him. This season’s ice time has proven they weren’t ready to give him a real shot. It’s not the fact that they sent him down to the AHL that he can’t handle. It’s that they wasted two precious years of his career before they did it.
He was absolutely right to ask for a trade, and he doesn’t owe the Lightning any favours as far as reporting to anyone.