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Drouin doing his best to deal with lofty expectations

by Lonnie Herman

TAMPA -- The skater deked left, made a simple move to his backhand and with a flip, the puck was over the goaltender's left pad and in the net.

That was Tampa Bay Lightning rookie Jonathan Drouin scoring the game-winning goal in the shootout in Saturday's preseason game against Jacob Markstrom and the Florida Panthers. And the sound that immediately followed was that of a small monkey falling off his back.

Because for Drouin, the Lightning's first-round pick (No. 3) in the 2013 NHL Draft, the bar has been set high and despite the continued efforts of Lightning management to downplay them, expectations have been set.

"He's 18 years old, so for an 18-year-old kid, and he is still a kid, to come in here and do what he's doing, he has to be a really good hockey player to keep up with what is going on here," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Are there holes in his game? There are. There are holes in everyone's game. Every game, just learn from it and move on and get better. He made mistakes tonight and he did some good things tonight, but you can see he's put himself in the mix, so that's good."

Drouin was on the ice when the Panthers scored to tie the game with just 58 seconds left in the third period, but was given the opportunity for redemption when the game remained tied after overtime.

"Putting young guys out there helps them grow in those situations," Cooper said. "Then, put him in a shootout and guys like him have the talent to do that. I know it's the preseason, but it is still the NHL and the game is on the line; no matter what happens, you have to be a little nervous."

And Drouin, appearing in only his second preseason game, was a bit nervous indeed.

"The fans here were screaming and everything," Drouin said. "It's my first shootout and obviously when I scored I was pretty happy about it. Scoring game-winning goals are fun. It's a confidence booster."

A confidence booster he probably could have used, since in addition to all his other pressures since camp opened, the Lightning have had Drouin play at center, a position change from the normal spot on wing he skated during most of juniors.

"When they told me (I would play center) it was a little bit of a surprise," he said. "I've been playing left wing all my juniors. It's an adjustment."

An adjustment he had planned on?

"No, not really," Drouin said. "They threw it at me at the rookie tournament and they still want me to play there, so I don't mind it. So I've been playing center and I'm fine with it if that's where they want me to play and I can't really do anything about that."

To Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, the move is only logical.

"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.

"He's a smart kid. He's quiet. I think he's just taking it all in and learning. It's a big jump going to your first NHL camp from junior, and seeing how big and strong and fast the players are. He's learning a lot and I think he's adjusting well."

In addition to a new spot on the ice, there have been plenty of other things for Drouin to get comfortable with.

"This is a fast pace," Cooper said. "You just can't jump in. He has to learn to play the pace of the game. It takes time to learn to play the pace, I don't care who you are. Slowly but surely he's getting better at it. Sometimes he gets caught standing still a little bit. He got popped once on a clean hit, but his head was down. Again, it's the pace of the game and you won't see that happen to him too often. But it will happen early in his career, but he bounced right back and didn't miss a shift and played hard."

Of course the NHL is quicker than what Drouin has been used to, and jumping from juniors to the NHL has never been an easy task. To understand that, Drouin need look no further than teammate Steven Stamkos, who spent a good part of his first season in the press box, watching the team and taking notes. And the jump is difficult for a number of reasons in addition to the speed of the game.

"There is a lot going on and I'm 18 years old," Drouin said. "I'm young. There is a lot going on; training camp, practices, it's a grind. Games are tough and you don't get much rest, but the guys here have been great. All the veterans have been helping me off the ice and letting me know what to do."

"You just can't jump in. He has to learn to play the pace of the game. It takes time to learn to play the pace, I don't care who you are. Slowly but surely he's getting better at it."
-- Lightning coach Jon Cooper on Jonathan Drouin

But will they still have Drouin to show the ropes to when training camp breaks in another 15 days?

The Lightning camp is a competitive one, and there are three or possibly four spots available on the forward lines with eight or nine players in the hunt, all of which, except for Drouin, have had American Hockey League and NHL experience. Several of these players have options and can be sent to the Lightning's AHL affiliate in Syracuse without having to clear waivers and possibly get claimed by another club.

Drouin is entitled to a nine-game look before a decision has to be made whether to keep him with the team all season or send him to juniors, but among his competition several of those contenders have looked good early. Brett Connolly has three goals in two preseason appearances, J.T. Brown has three points in two games and Ondrej Palat has two goals in two games.

But the Lightning are committed to taking a good luck at their young prize, and if he doesn't make the final roster, it appears certain he will be among the last cuts.

"It's way too early to judge," Yzerman said. "We know what his abilities are. Right now, we just want to let him play and experience his first training camp and preseason, so we're not going to judge him yet.

"He just played in his second preseason game; we've got three more next week and he'll potentially play in all three. We'll just keep watching. There's no rush; there's no timetable."

Still, his game-winning shootout goal showed management something, and it did wonders for Drouin and his self-confidence.

"It was the move I always do," he said. "I've been doing it at juniors. It's a fake then to the backhand and make sure you lift it. That's pretty much my move."

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