The Tampa Bay Lightning made a surprising move Sunday when it was announced that Jonathan Drouin, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft by the team, was being sent back to his junior club. The shifty winger dominated the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season and many believed he would, at the very least, receive a nine-game audition in Tampa before being sent back.
Drouin is the third top-10 draft pick from 2013 to have been reassigned to his junior club. Edmonton's Darnell Nurse and Vancouver's Bo Horvat are the other two. Though his puck skills are highlight worthy, Drouin may lack the physical strength for the NHL's 82-game grind.
As Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman told the Tampa Tribune Saturday:
“Mostly, we want him playing. And if he's not going to play regular (in the NHL), I want him playing. I don't really have a timetable on it because we do have the luxury …to stagger their games and delay it for as long as you really want. So, it's not like we are under a time crunch or anything.”
It's that last part of Yzerman's quote that makes this move surprising. Tampa had nine games to give him a shot at proving himself at the NHL level before activating Drouin's entry-level contract, but clearly the dynamic young forward wasn't going to get enough ice time to justify keeping him around for even that long.
This is a cautious move made by the Lightning brass, and really it's not a bad one either. If Drouin wasn't going to get the ice time, it's not worth wasting that first year of his cost-effective ELC.
Tampa fans likely were excited about seeing the young forward, but he wasn't the third overall pick because of what he can do right now. It's his long-term projection that makes him one of the most valuable prospects in hockey. With his puck skills and hockey sense, there's a good chance he'll be a big-time NHL producer over his career, especially if he ever lines up alongside Steven Stamkos.
Now Drouin will return to the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and be the go-to guy on that team all year for the defending QMJHL and Memorial Cup champions. After putting up 105 points as a 17-year-old last season, who knows what kind of damage Drouin will do with that extra experience under his belt.
There are probably a lot of coaches around the QMJHL that uttered an expletive or two upon learning the human highlight reel was coming back to Halifax.