BRANDON — He’d never been left behind — never.
Then it happened, last year, to Jonathan Drouin at Lightning training camp. He was 18, the third overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft, a stickhandling, playmaking phenom.
And he was left behind.
The Lightning, in transition, new coach, new path and stuffed with rookies (rookies who helped the team to the playoffs), sent Drouin back to his team at Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
He was left behind.
“At the beginning, it was hard,” Drouin said. “But as time goes on, you move on.”
Try moving him off the roster at training camp this season. Heads will be examined if that happens.
Drouin was a headliner as the Lightning convened their development camp Wednesday. Yes, there were all the new and shiny 2014 draft picks. But Drouin remains the one to watch. The Quebec native is just about here, to play in the NHL, to stick, to eventually play on one of this team’s top two lines … to eventually make magic with Steven Stamkos for years and years.
There was no point rushing Drouin last season, which speaks to newfound depth in the Lightning farm system, rebuilt by Bolts GM Steve Yzerman and his staff.
But Jonathan Drouin is almost here. Try to stop him. And he thinks he’s better for being left behind last season.
“I’m a playmaker more than anything,” Drouin said. “I’m working on my two-way game. I don’t want to be unreliable defensively, even though I’m an offensive guy.”
He averaged two points a game in the 2013-14 QMJHL season, finishing with 108 and a league-leading 79 assists. He added 41 points in 16 playoff games. Throw in three goals and nine points in seven games playing for Canada at the world junior championships. Drouin arrives at this camp a lot more comfortable.
“Last year I was a little nervous,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going on. This is a little different.”
Yes, he was left behind. Maybe it was a good thing.
“It fuels you a little bit,” Drouin said.
Not in an angry way. In a good way.
Nathan McKinnon, Drouin’s good friend and Halifax linemate for two seasons, was the top pick in that 2013 draft. He starred for the Colorado Avalanche, winning the Calder Trophy for the NHL’s top rookie. Two Lightning rookies, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, finished behind McKinnon in Calder voting.
“Nathan deserved it. They all deserved it,” Drouin said.
Meanwhile, Drouin kept working in juniors, refining his game, thriving.
“I competed a little more. I rounded my game a little bit,” he said.
“We had to make a decision on him and we were moving in all these other young guys,” Yzerman said. “You can only move in so many.”
“It was by no means to send him a message,” Bolts coach Jon Cooper said. “Jonathan Drouin is not someone we’re investing in for one year. We’re investing in him for a decade or more. Why would we want to rush the finished product?”
“As the year went on, Jonathan got better and better,” Yzerman said. “When he went back, he was like No. 1 penalty killer, ran the power play, played in all situations. He was dominating at both ends of the rink.”
“He really bought in,’” said Stacy Roest, Lightning director of player development. “And he’s super skilled. To see a kid that young and the way he can control the puck — not many players in the NHL can do that, let alone a kid his age.
“I went to one game where he could have had three assists on his first shift. One time, he came down 2-on-1 and he missed, but he came around the net, back-checked, took the puck away, moved his feet, got it back out front and scored. He did it all, right there. I think sometimes even the other teams just stop and watch.”
Coming soon to an arena near you …