TAMPA — There is a learning curve all first-year players must go through in the NHL.
Jonathan Drouin is going through that right now.
The third overall pick in the 2013 draft missed all of training camp with a fracture in his right thumb and missed the opportunity to learn in a more conducive environment than the pressure cooker of an NHL regular season game.
On Saturday, Drouin was a healthy scratch, watching from the press box for the first time, something C Steven Stamkos did twice during his rookie season.
After making his NHL debut on Oct. 20 in Edmonton and playing 16-19 minutes in each of his first four games, Drouin saw his ice time drop to 9-14 minutes in the next eight games. Though he has five assists in the past seven games, the coaching staff want Drouin to learn how to play away from the puck before expanding the rookie’s role on the team.
There has been steady improvement in that area as Drouin is being utilized in late-game situations when the game is tied or the team is protecting a lead.
“He’s been fine, he’s just learning the league,’’ Cooper said. “If you have the puck on your stick for maybe 20-30 seconds the entire game, where are you the other 59-and-a-half minutes? So, it’s the play away from the puck, and that’s the biggest thing that goes undervalued when kids come up. He’s a really skilled kid but you have to watch where he is away from puck. And they all go through these learning curves.
“He’s getting better. He’s a better player today than when he came into the league, and two weeks from now he’ll be a better player than he is today. And that’s what we want to see. If we were seeing him digress, that would be a different issue, and we haven’t.’’
Drouin said he understands the process.
“I’m better at the game away from the puck than when I came,’’ he said. “There is a lot of stuff for me to learn and there is a process before my minutes go up. I know there are other guys that have done the same thing as me (making jump from junior to the NHL); it’s just a process and you keep going.’’
In Hedman’s absence
On Saturday, the Tampa Bay Lightning hit the four-week mark since D Victor Hedman was lost to a fractured finger.
The team’s top defenseman was off to a fast start with three goals and seven points in four games before getting injured in the second period in Vancouver on Oct. 18.
The original diagnosis for Hedman’s return was four to six weeks, but after undergoing surgery to have pins placed in the right index finger, that timeline will end up being at least six weeks as Cooper said he expects Hedman to be out until early December.
Hedman has been skating on his own but has yet to be cleared to take shots.
In his absence the defense had been able to step up for the most part and help the team absorb the 20 minutes per night Hedman was playing before he went down as Tampa Bay has posted a 9-3-1 record - including the Vancouver game - since Hedman went down.
“I think we have been playing some good hockey, we are a good team and he obviously is a big key of it,’’ defenseman Anton Stralman said. “But if you look at the depth we have, the games we have been playing, we have been winning without him. It feels really good knowing that, but obviously when he comes back we will be even better.’’
Lightning G Evgeni Nabokov tended net for the New York Islanders for three seasons from 2011-14, and Saturday was the first chance for him to see his former teammates. Though the 39-year-old is not scheduled to start against the Islanders, he has his eye on possibly getting the call Tuesday when Tampa Bay travels to Long Island for the second half of back-to-back games with the Islanders.
“Absolutely,’’ he said when asked if he wants to play on Tuesday. “But the coaches will decide what they want to do. It’s not up to me, it’s up to them. And whatever the team needs, whatever (the coach) thinks is the right decision at that moment, that is what he is going to do.’’
Nuts and Bolts
C Steven Stamkos extended his scoring streak to five games. ... D Mark Barberio and RW Brett Connolly (lower body injury) were scratched..