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Lightning rookie Drouin adjusts to learning curve

by Dan Rosen

You can imagine Tampa Bay Lightning rookie Jonathan Drouin's reaction when he found out he was going to be scratched Nov. 15 against the New York Islanders. Think of a look of perplexity and surprise, and you'll have an idea.

"It's the first time I ever got scratched, so it was weird," Drouin, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, told

But not totally unexpected based on how Drouin had been playing.

"We had gone over a lot of things with him and ultimately I think he knew it was coming, to be honest," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Was he surprised? I'm sure he was in the sense that he was getting scratched, but I don't think that he argued. He wasn't like, 'I can't believe it.' I'm sure he was more like, 'I can't believe it has come to this.'"

Jonathan Drouin
Left Wing - TBL
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 12 | PTS: 14
SOG: 26 | +/-: -1
Drouin has been scratched three times since that game against the Islanders. He's also played the past three games on the top line with Steven Stamkos, and will start there Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins as well.

This is the bumpy, unpredictable road to stardom Drouin is going to have to travel. Nothing will come easy. There will be no handouts. Everything is a challenge.

"It's an adjustment," Drouin said.

One he had no way to prepare for considering his background as a highly touted, super scoring forward who came into the NHL accustomed to having the offense built around him and his line, which in junior hockey at times featured Nathan MacKinnon.

Drouin's background meant he would enter the League with hype based on his potential. Now that he's here, he has to be the one to put it together so he can become a star.

The ice time that was guaranteed to Drouin in junior hockey must be earned in the NHL, most often by building a foundation based on adhering to the smaller details of the game. That's a hard process to go through for most offensive players, particularly someone like Drouin, who was solely relied on for his scoring in junior hockey and would occasionally take shifts as long as 90 seconds or even two minutes

"The coaches always say it's going to take time and one day you'll be back to where you want to be," Drouin said.

Considering the flashes Drouin has shown that day likely will come eventually, but given the topsy-turvy nature of his season to date, it'd be a mistake to bank on him figuring it all out as a rookie.

There could be more nights in the press box as a healthy scratch before the season is over. There could also be more nights playing with Stamkos on Tampa Bay's top line. It all depends on how he plays.

If Drouin doesn't fully adapt by next season there could be a demotion to the American Hockey League. Drouin is ineligible to play in the AHL this season because he's 19 years old. He might be there now if he was 20 years old.

"I'm just learning how the NHL life is a little bit different," Drouin said. "It's way different than junior."

The good thing is Drouin doesn't have to look far for the road map to success for players who enter the League with high expectations.

Stamkos went through the exact same growing pains six years ago, when he was an 18-year-old rookie and the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft. Stamkos was scratched three times as a rookie in the 2008-09 season, including for the first time in his life on Jan. 9, 2009.

"I can relate," Stamkos said. "It's tough. It takes you a while to be adjusted, but if you can have some veteran guys around it definitely makes it a lot easier."

Stamkos had Martin St. Louis to guide him. Drouin has Stamkos.

"When I got scratched he came to me, talked to me and said, 'Just keep working, it happened to me in my rookie year,'" Drouin said of Stamkos. "He gives me tips and has been very helpful."

Stamkos said getting scratched helped make him a better player. He thinks the same thing is happening for Drouin, who had an assist on Stamkos' goal and played a season-high 21:15 against the New Jersey Devils on Friday.

His play dipped the next night against the Islanders, so his ice time did as well. Drouin played 15 shifts totaling 13:19 in a 3-1 loss. That was eight fewer shifts and nearly eight fewer minutes of ice time than he had the night before in New Jersey.

"It's frustrating at the time, but looking back now it gave you a chance to watch the game from a different perspective and realize maybe you have that extra second to make a play," Stamkos said of getting scratched. "That's something with him, he has such unbelievable skill, but it's just realizing sometimes that you can hold on to that puck."

Drouin hasn't yet realized that.

"You can't hold on to the puck here," he said. "You touch the puck for three seconds maybe once a shift, and sometimes you don't even touch it."

Cooper is waiting for Drouin to realize that he can do more because he's different, he's special.

"He has more time than he thinks he has," Cooper said. "His answer will be different next year."

Drouin, though, said he's starting to play with the pace of the NHL more in recent games. He said earlier in the season he was stopping and waiting for something to happen; now he's trying to be actively involved by always moving his feet. He called it "chasing the game."

"Sometimes you look for the home run play, but the simple plays when you don't have anything are better," Drouin said. "You're not going to score every shift, so it's the little stuff, the battling on the boards, the breakout. I think I've changed my game a little more with that stuff. I chase the game a little more, whereas before I just watched and waited."

Cooper said he has noticed Drouin's confidence climb in recent games. It's not a coincidence it has happened in games he's been on a line with Stamkos.

Cooper compared Drouin's trajectory in the first half of this season to the path Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov started on last season.

Kucherov, the Lightning's second-round pick in 2011, was an occasional healthy scratch last season, when he was trying to feel his way into the League instead of going full bore.

"I wanted to wring his neck [last season]," Cooper said of Kucherov.

Kucherov had 18 points in 52 games as a rookie; he has 30 points, including 13 goals, in 35 games this season.

"Look at him now," Cooper said.

Cooper also watched Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, both Calder Trophy finalists last season, go through ups and downs, particularly when they were called up from Syracuse of the American Hockey League after Cooper took over the Lightning late in the 2012-13 season.

"But I wouldn't say growing pains with Jonathan Drouin; he's just learning," Cooper said. "He's learning like everybody had to. His biggest thing is he's continuing to learn away from the puck, but he's been competing hard for us and starting to get some looks now in the offensive end. It takes time. It takes time for everybody. He's going to be a good player in this League."


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