Since being recalled from the Syracuse Crunch with a couple of days to go in the regular season, Jonathan Drouin has been on a mission. Granted, the mission was quite of his own doing. Despite that, Drouin’s play has displayed his desire of showing the hockey world what his talents can produce while his team is trying to get to the biggest stage in the game for the second consecutive year.
After news of the emergency blood clot surgery that has sidelined Steven Stamkos precipitated the recall, Drouin has played arguably, the best hockey of his brief career. To think of where he was a few short weeks ago and to see where he is now as he helped his team punch their ticket for a second consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference finals.
Scoring two goals in the Lightning’s last two regular season games was just an ice breaker for Drouin. Out of necessity, he was playing Top 6 minutes. Drouin responded. During the playoffs, he has been one of the best players in a Lightning sweater. Showing a grittier, feistier manner in his play has led to more consistency in his overall game. Drouin’s performance opens up questions that have long term consequences for the franchise.
Even the most casual of fans know that Steven Stamkos is a free agent on July 1st. Rumors have had numerous life forms throughout the season about whether Stamkos would stay in Tampa or sign elsewhere. Lightning GM, Steve Yzerman has said for the last year that re-signing Stamkos was his highest priority.
As the Conference finals begin, Stamkos has begun skating in a regular jerseys, yet there is still no definitive return date. The players know one thing: The deeper they go, the better chance to see Stamkos wearing the Lightning Bolt again. Then again, if Yzerman finalizes negotiations with Stamkos, he will be in a Lightning sweater for years to come.
The noteworthy play of Drouin in addition to the injury of Stamkos has given Yzerman a gift not many GM’s ever get. With Stamkos out indefinitely, Yzerman has been given an opportunity to see his team without the pending free agent all-star, without having to actually lose Stamkos. He’s getting a glimpse into a Lightning future that does not include Stamkos during the most critical games played by the team all year.
#TBLightning Jonathan Drouin in 2015-16
21 regular-season games: 10 points
11 playoff games: 10 points (incl. 3-0 TB goal)
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) May 14, 2016
Whether the new and improved Drouin has any effect into the Stamkos negotiations is unknown. Seeing his young charges play as well as they have so far in the playoffs without their captain is a huge dividend for Yzerman. Perhaps all it does is give Yzerman a little leverage in the ongoing Stamkos negotiations. From Stamkos’ perspective, he sees a team that can justify consideration for being one of the league’s best with or without their captain. Stamkos turns a very good team into a great team, a potential all-time great team.
Beyond the ramifications involving Stamkos, there are other roster spots that could very well be altered by the rejuvenated play of Drouin. Besides Stamkos, the Lightning have three other unrestricted free agents in Jonathan Marchessault, Mike Blunden and Matt Taormina. With all due respect, those three won’t make or break the franchise but Marchessault did have significant playing time during the regular season and seems to fit into the Lightning offensive scheme very well.
Truth or Consequences
The bigger issue facing Yzerman will be the team’s restricted free agents. There is a long and prominent list of players that will need new contracts this off-season and next. The upcoming RFA’s include forwards Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, J.T. Brown, Vlad Namestnikov, and Cedric Paquette. These five average 23.6 years of age.
Kucherov who is leading the NHL in goals scored with 9 in 11 games, is one of the youngest of this bunch. He and Paquette are both 22 years-old. A year older is Namestnikov and Brown (25) and Killorn (26) are the seniors in this group. On defense, 23 year old Nikita Nesterov is a restricted free agent. So, how does the rejuvenated play of Drouin impact any of these players? If I had to pick, I’d say that Killorn is someone who could be adversely affected with the emergence of the new and improved Drouin.
The list of restricted and unrestricted free agents is long and Yzerman will have some difficult decisions to make. Drouin’s recent play could make matters a lot easier for Yzerman or not. Not, if Drouin’s play is seen as an anomaly. Sure, it’s the playoffs and the kid has something to prove but to reach his potential, he needs to play like this throughout an 82 game regular season. Yzerman may have to take a pass on keeping Stamkos or Killorn or any of the other free agents if he thinks that next year he can lock up Drouin to a long term contract.
Long Term Consequences
Speaking of next year, that is when Drouin’s entry level contract is up. So, his resurgent play obviously has personal consequences for his next deal. In addition to Drouin, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Brian Boyle, Andrej Sustr and goalies, Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy are all free agents. So, does the playoff push the Lightning are receiving from Drouin have multiple and more long term consequences about who gets the deal that they want with the team that they most likely want to remain a part of long term?
It has been said and written that Yzerman cannot possibly sign everyone this year and next to keep the band together. I believe he can. Whether a home team discount is given by Team Stamkos but even signing him to a $9 million cap hit, it can be done. So, can keeping the band together. There may be a casualty along the way, guys who under perform their cap hit.
One thing that has been evident during this season and magnified during the playoffs is just how deep this Lightning franchise has become. Drouin’s play does nothing more than make the Lightning that much better. Re-signing Stamkos makes them even better. Identifying and locking up the critical group of players that will carry this team for a five, six or seven year run is Yzerman’s challenge. Knowing the way Yzerman the player approached his game, it is safe to say that Yzerman the GM is shooting for the top. The very top. For the next decade.