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Analysis: Drouin must focus on earning role in Tampa

by Dan Rosen

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin reported to Syracuse of the American Hockey League on Tuesday. The only thing he needs to do now is try to play well enough to get himself back to the Lightning so he can try to earn his playing time in the NHL.

If Drouin focuses on anything else, particularly his ill-timed and ill-advised trade request, he'd be doing himself and his team a disservice.

Drouin's trade request, made public Sunday by his agent, Allan Walsh, is an unnecessary and impatient move from a player who still has a lot to prove in the NHL, a player who has scored six goals in 89 games and has 19 shots on goal in 19 games this season.

Judging by those numbers, the Lightning shouldn't have to justify sending a struggling 20-year-old player to the AHL to find his game. It should be as obvious as the fact that if the Lightning traded Drouin now, they wouldn't get near the return on their investment as they should.

The Lightning shouldn't feel compelled to trade Drouin, nor should Drouin have felt compelled to try to force their hand. So he was the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. So what? There is no entitlement in professional sports for young players. Everything must be earned.

Drouin hasn't earned a regular spot in the lineup yet. That's why he's in the AHL now.

He wasn't good enough to earn a roster spot in his first training camp. He was injured in training camp last season, a setback that dogged him all season as he tried to play catch-up on a team that had the best offense in the NHL with arguably the best top-six forward group.

When it came to the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Lightning coach Jon Cooper went with the players he trusted more. The Lightning made it to the Stanley Cup Final with Drouin appearing in a total of three games in the first three rounds.

Should Cooper have used Drouin more in the Cup Final, when the Lightning were struggling to score? It's a fair question and maybe he should have. He didn't. The Lightning lost. It wasn't because of Cooper or Drouin. The Chicago Blackhawks were better. Move on.

Drouin and Cooper did.

Drouin earned a bigger role in training camp this season and he got to start the regular season on the top line with Steven Stamkos. Cooper wanted him there. He belonged there. He was also on the power play, where he belonged.

He started well too, with six points in the first five games, but then he slumped, got hurt, and has been in and out of the lineup because of injuries ever since, playing in only nine of 28 games from Oct. 29 through Dec. 30. He had two points in that span.

Drouin needs to find his game again. That's why the AHL makes sense. He's a still-developing player going to the best developmental league in the world.

He couldn't go to the AHL last season because he was too young. He's old enough now and this could be the best thing for him and his development. The NHL is not a developmental league.

And make no mistake, the Lightning need him to develop because nobody benefits from Drouin being a flop in Tampa Bay, especially at a time when there is so much uncertainty about the future of captain Steven Stamkos beyond Feb. 29, the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline.

Part of the legacy that general manager Steve Yzerman and Cooper are trying to build in Tampa Bay is tied to Drouin's future. They chose him in the draft over players such as Seth Jones, Sean Monahan and Max Domi. There is as much pressure on them to get the best out of Drouin as there is on Drouin to deliver the best he's got.

But the fact Drouin's trade request came a month before the Lightning decided to send him to the AHL suggests his mindset, and that of the people guiding him, is not in the appropriate place.

What Drouin should be focused on solely is getting his game to be at a level commensurate with the minutes and role he feels he deserves, the minutes and role the Lightning would love to give him based on his obvious skill and dynamic game-breaking ability.

It's on Drouin to make it happen. That's what he should be focused on. That's all he should be focused on.


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