What if … Jonathan Drouin's Tampa time wasn’t so chaotic? (NHL Alternate History)

(Ed. Note: It’s the NHL Alternate History project! We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team? Today: Achariya Tanya Rezak of Raw Charge on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Enjoy!)

By Achariya Tanya Rezak

Like many of the denizens of Florida, I love watching telenovelas.

That’s also why I love hockey — in any given season there’s enough drama, intrigue, good, evil, heroes and villains to fill the plot of the longest-running subtitled serial dramas. The Tampa Bay Lightning have had their fill of cinematic moments (the fanbase will never forget the abrupt departure of beloved character Martin St. Louis, as he flounced off, stage left), but no character has been more fascinating in recent years than another Quebecois lad: Jonathan Drouin.

Drouin was the fanbase’s hope for the future, the rising young playmaker that would set up Steven Stamkos’s one-timers after Martin St. Louis departed. But despite getting drafted at third overall in 2013, everyone in Tampa had to hold our collective breath for another year because this telenovela’s director, Steve Yzerman, sent Drouin back to acting school. Drouin went into camp determined to impress — and after camp, got busted back to Halifax, much to our sorrow and Mooseheads’ fans delight.

Yzerman said to Yahoo:

“Well, 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. 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.”

At the time, Yzerman spoke of his commitment to Drouin’s growth and development, but in his words you could faintly detect the diesel odor of Detroit and shadow of the winged wheel. Was Yzerman going to overcook Drouin as his years in Detroit had taught him?

Which brings me to the first what-if of many in this telenovela’s alternate universe: What if Drouin had not been sent back in 2013-14?

Tales of Drouin’s deeds in Halifax were legendary, and we all watched as he worked on his defensive skills as a center. He played 46 games with Halifax in 2013-14, garnering 29 goals and 79 assists, 108 points in all. Was this going to be enough to get him some time in the NHL?

It was, and we fans of the Tampa Bay Lightning were excited about seeing Drouin, finally, in the lineup for the 2014-15 season. But then he broke his thumb in a wacky fall during training camp and didn’t see the ice until near the end of October. He briefly went to the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch on a conditioning stint after the injury, but debuted with the NHL team when injuries to other forwards on a Western Canada trip made it necessary. Incidentally, this is when the Triplets were born, but that’s a different telenovela plotline.

The 2014-15 season was remarkable in franchise history. Steven Stamkos took the ice as captain for the first time. The black third jerseys debuted, and we could finally defend ourselves against Leafs fans’ accusations of jersey theft by wearing an LA Kings-lookalike instead. (Just kidding. TBL jerseys are perfect.) But perhaps it was this season and not 2013-14 that was the seed of Drouin’s demise as a franchise player for the Lightning.

By the end of October 2014, coach Jon Cooper saw fit to bust Drouin down the lineup. Drouin was not on the first line with Stamkos. Sometimes he wasn’t even on the second line, and barely broke the third. Why? There was a lot of speculation, but it boiled down to a phrase that Lightning fans would learn like a mantra: He needed to learn to play away from the puck. In 70 games played, Drouin scored four goals and 28 assists, while yet remaining the analytics geeks’ darling by managing a CF% of 53.8 despite dragging the fourth line down the ice.

Which brings me to the second what-if: What if Drouin had different deployment in 2014-15?

Raw Charge writer GeoFitz mentions that during this season, Drouin’s most common linemates by time on ice were fourth-liner Cedric Paquette, Stamkos, Brian Boyle, Alex Killorn, Valtteri Filppula, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ryan Callahan, and Brendan Morrow. Some of these names are not like the others. If consistently better linemates had skated with him, would Drouin have won more of Cooper’s faith?

Cooper’s opinion of Drouin got even worse in that season’s playoffs. Cooper’s Lightning kept winning, round after round, so people hesitated to criticise his deployment of Drouin as fifth-line popcorn server. No, I’m lying. Even in “not a what-if” reality, Cooper generated many thought pieces (especially from the Montreal press) about whether he was doing the right thing by letting Morrow play in game after game while letting Drouin sit.

Here’s the third what-if: What if Cooper had played Drouin in more than six playoff games in 2014-15? Would Drouin have thrived under the trust of the coach and found his game?

The telenovela episode that ended Drouin’s first season with the Tampa Bay Lightning was a heart-breaking one. The elegy to the year was beautifully written by Craig Custance, as was Drouin’s final moment of the season:

Jonathan Drouin cries in a stall, by himself along a far wall. You can’t tell at first because there’s a towel draped over his head. When he peels it off, wiping his face, his eyes give it away.”

My fourth what if is this: What if the Tampa Bay Lightning had won the 2015 Stanley Cup?

Perhaps Drouin would have felt his bitterness at lack of ice time ease by having his name on the side of the Cup, and being welcomed back to Tampa as a young but growing hero. Perhaps winning would have been the best balm for all of the fanbase — and would have spared us a whole summer of listening to pundits debate whether or not the word “dynasty” applied to the Chicago Blackhawks, or the LA Kings, or both.

Things went from bad to worse for Drouin in 2015-16. After a scant few games finally playing alongside Stamkos with Ryan Callahan on the other wing, the team’s Cup-run hangover kicked in hardcore. Among other misfortunes, Andrei Vasilevskiy had a blood clot near his collarbone, Victor Hedman probably had a concussion, and Tyler Johnson’s wrist injury from the playoffs still impacted his play. Somewhere in this span, Alex Killorn missed a game, Palat missed some games, and Nikita Nesterov was suspended for boarding. Then Drouin had two lengthy injuries in a row, and when he returned from injury, he was back on the bottom line. When Palat returned from injury and the other Jonathan, Jonathan Marchessault, was playing so well that Cooper couldn’t justify sending him down — Drouin fell out of the Tampa Bay Lightning lineup completely.

On January 20th, the Lightning telenovela jumped the shark when, after playing a few games in the minors, Drouin decided not to report to the Syracuse Crunch for a game against the Toronto Marlies. This was not the first time in franchise history that a player had failed to report to the AHL — the last one before that was from a guy you might have heard of, a forward named Sheldon Keefe, in 2000-01.

This was, however, the most dramatic huff about demotion in well over a decade. Not only that, Drouin’s agent, Allan Walsh, made it clear when Drouin was demoted that he had requested a trade away from the team back in November, and his failure to report was to save his body for whatever team might pick him up.

Here’s the fifth what-if: What if Drouin had reported? If this telenovela were sticking to the usual heroic plot, Drouin would’ve learned some life lessons and earned the trust of former AHL coach Cooper by being knocked around in the minors some, and then returned to Tampa to rise to glory. I can hear that coach’s presser script in my head. “He needed some seasoning in the AHL, and he got it, which is why he can play so well away from the puck now.”

Instead, there was radio silence from Drouin and the organization until the trade deadline passed at the end of February, and when Drouin was not traded anywhere (because although he tried, Yzerman could not find a trade partner that gave equal value in return), Drouin went back to the AHL.

But here’s where the plot gets riveting. Drouin’s time off from hockey had apparently changed his mental game, something beyond what playing in the AHL could have. In ten games with the Crunch after his return, Drouin garnered nine goals and an assist. This kind of fierce energy earned him a call-up for the last two games of the season after Stamkos went down with a blood clot, and he finished the NHL season with four goals and six assists in 21 games. This was somehow the best possible timeline, and there are no what-ifs here — after his return, Drouin got serious about the game he loved and finally showed fans what he could do, every night on the ice.

The Tampa Bay Lightning made the playoffs in 2016 despite the troubling news that Stamkos would sit out the first and second rounds, at least, due to surgery for the blood clot. Sixth what-if: What if the team had folded and not made the playoffs? This became 2017’s plot, but in 2016, in part due to exemplary and record-setting play from Ben Bishop, the team did. Drouin, once Cooper’s popcorn server, took on a stronger role on the ice — especially after it was announced that Stamkos would not be playing.

Drouin’s 2016 playoff was succinctly summarized by Bleacher Report:

“In the first round of the playoffs, [Drouin] failed to score but did contribute four assists in a five-game series win over the Detroit Red Wings. He picked up the pace against the New York Islanders, scoring his first goal of the playoffs and putting up five points in five second-round games. Then he scored in each of the first two games against Pittsburgh.”

He ended playoffs with five goals and nine assists in 17 games.

We’ve finally come to the penultimate what-if, the saddest what-if of all. The Tampa Bay Lightning were up 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Final, and could have clinched a berth to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in two years by defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins at home. And the hero of this tale could have been none other than prodigal son Jonathan Drouin, returned from the wilderness to put the team up 1-0 in the opening goal of the game…

Except for one small thing.

Jonathan Drouin’s trailing skate was behind the blue line but off the ice (by a scant inch perhaps) when Hedman carried in the puck. If you’re a masochist (or a Penguins fan interested in reliving the moment), you can read the situation room’s judgement over here.

Sometime back in 2004, a Flames fan is smiling.

Here’s the last what-if: So, what if there was no [expletive] off-side rule?

The headline of the NHL game recap is “Drouin’s disallowed goal leaves Lightning flat.” Is there a case that if this goal was an actual goal, the team would have rallied to end the Penguins’ hopes? Given that the Bolts lost 5-2, the team likely needed much more than Drouin to win it. Having Stamkos back to contend against two of the best forwards in hockey would’ve been nice, but his health issues are the plot of a whole different story.

Let’s just say that the Lightning took heart from Drouin’s goal and went on to win it, somehow. Then, perhaps, would the Drouin story arc in this telenovela have ended entirely differently? Hailed as a hero, perhaps he would have gone on to cement his place in the Lightning lineup as the playoff scorer the team desperately needed. Perhaps he would not have seemed so replaceable that in the summer of 2017, Yzerman decided that he was the expendable forward that could be traded for a defenseman.

But after a mediocre 2016-17 season for the team as a whole, Jonathan Drouin’s time in our Tampa Bay telenovela was officially over — and he was traded, to a team who could both pronounce his name correctly and deploy him on their top line.

Don’t get me wrong, Tampa Bay Lightning fans are now mostly at peace with it  — the fanbase understands the need for what Mikhail Sergachev can bring to the lineup. But after all that time and investment of emotion into a character, it seems like a hard, “Game-of-Thrones”-esque, ending to swallow.

There’s one more what if, a P.S. if you will: What if the Lightning had gone on to another Cup final in 2016?

Would Drouin still be with us?

With thanks to Fulemin, GeoFitz4, and KatyaKnappe for their editing assistance.

PREVIOUSLY ON NHL ALTERNATE HISTORY

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