Lightning fans falling in love with reborn Drouin

by Gary Shelton on April 20, 2016 · 4 comments

in general, Tampa Bay Lightning

It didn't take Drouin long to get the fans back on his side./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

It didn't take Drouin long to get the fans back on his side./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

Wednesday, 6 a.m.

With every pass, you love him more. With every play, you understand his point.

One shift at a time, Jonathan Drouin is winning Lightning fans over.

Oh, it wasn't long ago that Lightning fans were content to boot Drouin off of the bus. He was a baby, a pouter, a whiner. He was the guy who took his marbles and went home, and Lightning fans were more than content to show him the way. He was the guy who walked away from his team, who demanded a trade from a team where he really hadn't done a thing, who held his breath until he turned blue.

You know. Back in the misguided old days.

These days, he is a playoff hero. Take Tuesday night, when he had assists on every Lightning goal in a 3-2 win over the Red Wings. Spin

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it any way you want, but without Drouin, the Lightning doesn't win that game.

And aren't you glad that he's here?

It has been a wacky season for Drouin. Even now, you can question his decision to hold out and demand a trade, because he didn't have the leverage for either. But you know what? You can't deny Drouin's point. He was better than coach Jon Cooper was using him. He did deserve a bigger role. That's obvious every time he skates across the ice.

Drouin is a player, a creator, and the Lightning would be hard-headed to let him go at this point. Cooper admits that Drouin has earned his ice. But let's be honest. It isn't as if Drouin just turned on a light and learned how to play. The team, too, has loosened the reins on him, and it has been good for both sides.

You wonder: If Steven Stamkos had not needed surgery, who knows if the Bolts call up Drouin or not? And if not, who knows what kind of shape this series is in?

Jonathan Drouin hasn't backed up much against the Red Wings./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

Jonathan Drouin hasn't backed up much against the Red Wings./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

Oh, there are other stars for the Bolts. Nikita Kucherov is scoring like he's playing pinball. He had two more goals — he has five for the series — and an assist. Ondrej Palat knocked in the winner. Ben Bishop once again held the Bolts' opponent to two goals. Victor Hedman played for thirty minutes.

In the end, this was the kid's game. Mind you, in the history of sports, there have been a lot of athletes who have overcome a silly decision to succeed. But it usually takes more than a couple of weeks.

“The one thing that gets missed in all of this is that we never, ever gave up on Jonathan,” said coach Jon Cooper. “He's a young kid finding his way in pro hockey. He made some decisions and stuck to them. He took a stand and made his decision.

“We can debate whether he was right or wrong. But he came back and made a choice to succeed and battle through things. There was no gratuitous call-up. He earned his way back. I'm unbelievably proud of the way he's handled himself. He deserves this with the way he's played and come back. I'm really happy for him.”

Try, for a minute, to understand where Drouin is coming from. Like a lot of pro hockey players, he is proud of his gifts. He knows what he can do on the ice. But Cooper kept on him about other responsibilities on the ice. He limited his time. He limited his play in big moments. And if you're Drouin, you probably felt buried beneath Cooper's guys.

And so he tried to force a trade. Again, he had no leverage. It was a silly holdout made sillier by an agent's rhetoric.

For Drouin, this is a second start. Oh, you can bet that a lot of general managers are kicking themselves that they didn't meet Yzerman's price. Again, there was little evidence of this kind of play on this level. But for the right mix of young players and picks, Drouin could have been had. I believe that.

Now, the Lightning should never let him go. The price should be a bunch of high draft picks now.

What you wonder is this: Does Drouin's play affect the way the team thinks about keeping Steven Stamkos? Oh, it shouldn't. There are plenty of slots across four lines to make room for them both. But Drouin is cheap, and he is young, and he is skilled. Stamkos is older, and expensive, and if you pay him, you may not be able to pay everyone else who is coming up for negotiation.

The easy decision is to let Stamkos go and try to fill the gap with Kucherov and Drouin and a healthy Johnson. It might not be the right decision — you don't let 40-goal scorers walk — but you can see where the Lightning might make it.

In the meantime, Drouin keeps pushing up the ice, that marvelous vision of his scanning the territory. This is where he should have been all along. This is how he should have been used.

He is Drouin.

And he owns this joint.

Drouin had three assists against Red Wings./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

Drouin had three assists against Red Wings./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

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