Jonathan Drouin has gone from chic pick to win the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2013-14 to being the favorite to claim the Michel Briere Memorial Trophy.
That's the award given to the MVP of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and it is one that is already on Drouin's resume after he won it last season. He'll have a chance to be the first back-to-back recipient since Sidney Crosby in 2004 and 2005 because, in a surprising move, the Tampa Bay Lightning announced the decision Sunday to return Drouin to the Halifax Mooseheads.
Drouin was the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, and from the moment he was drafted, the idea of him playing alongside Steven Stamkos or Valtteri Filppula and learning from veteran star Martin St. Louis seemed like a natural fit. It also looked like a chance for Drouin to flourish despite being a smallish 18-year-old.
Instead, the Lightning have chosen patience over instant gratification, and will let Drouin spend another year terrorizing goaltenders in the "Q" before he starts his professional career.
"We think he's an incredible talent, a very intelligent hockey player, great hockey sense, great vision. We just feel he's better served by playing another year of junior hockey," general manager Steve Yzerman told Damian Cristodero of the Tampa Bay Times. "I don't want him being in and out of the lineup. I don't want him playing limited minutes. Our assessment was he's better off playing another year of junior hockey, hopefully playing for Canada at the World Junior Championships and developing there."
Drouin teamed with Nathan MacKinnon to slice through the QMJHL last season en route to the Memorial Cup. He had 140 points in 66 games between the regular season and the playoffs. MacKinnon was the No. 1 pick by the Colorado Avalanche, and he's not returning to Halifax.
Aleksander Barkov, the No. 2 pick, and Seth Jones, the No. 4 pick, are both going to be in the NHL this season. The guys who went fifth (Elias Lindholm to Carolina) and sixth (Sean Monahan to Calgary) are also going to get a chance to stick around.
So why isn't Drouin, someone who was in contention to be the No. 1 pick and reportedly seen by some NHL scouts as a better prospect than MacKinnon, going to have that chance as well?
A big part of the answer is opportunity. The Lightning have a collection of prospects they have been developing since bottoming out from 2007-09 and securing plenty of high picks.
Those guys have had plenty of success and built chemistry together while playing for the team's American Hockey League affiliate. Is Drouin a better long-term prospect than guys like Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik and Ondrej Palat? Absolutely, but it isn't always going to be a slam-dunk that a slight 18-year-old is going to be able to beat out 22-year-olds who have had years of playing together and professional training, both on the ice and off it.
Those three guys are all going to be on the opening-night roster, along with 24-year-old Alex Killorn. Someday soon they could all be complimentary pieces around Stamkos and Drouin, but for now Yzerman and the Lighting decided they are more ready to play in the NHL.
"Getting adjusted to the NHL pace, playing the game at an NHL speed," Yzerman said to the Times when asked what Drouin needs to work on. "For him, it's going to happen in time. Our biggest concern was ice time. Where is he going to play? Who is he going to play with? The way we're set up up front, he's not going to get the minutes we want him to play, so it's best he goes back to junior."
If Lightning fans are looking for precedent, they don't need to look far. Jonathan Huberdeau was also the third pick in an NHL Draft. He also destroyed the "Q" in his draft year on a team that reached the Memorial Cup, and had little left to prove at that level.
He also wasn't built like Gabriel Landeskog or Barkov, so the Florida Panthers sent Huberdeau back to junior for his age-18 season. That worked out pretty well for his development. Huberdeau was better prepared for the NHL as a 19-year-old; he has a Calder Trophy to prove it.
There's even some recent history for the Lightning to draw on. Stamkos struggled mightily early in his rookie season, and at one point was taken out of the lineup so he could spend more time training his body and learning by watching at this level. The Lighting decided they didn't that to be a possibility for Drouin, and with the other prospects they have now that they didn't have then, they have the luxury of being patient.