Comfort is key for Lightning’s Jonathan Drouin

(Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

The 2015-16 NHL season hasn’t gone according to plan for either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Jonathan Drouin. If the playoffs started today, the Bolts wouldn’t get an invite to the dance. Granted they are only one point out of the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, but we’re roughly a quarter of the way through this campaign — one that began with Stanley Cup hopes after a coming two victories shy a year ago.

Drouin was only involved in six of those playoff games, but entered this season looking to make good on his pedigree. The third overall selection at the 2013 draft got a full training camp under his belt (unlike in 2014 when he was limited due to a fractured thumb) and landed on a line with Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan to begin the year.

He notched six of his eight points through Tampa’s first five games when he was on the top unit. Drouin was seeing upwards of 15 minutes a night while skating on the “Stamkos line” and seemed to be thriving on that wing. Then an injury derailed him, causing him to miss five games from October 29 to November 7.

Drouin skated a little more than 12 minutes in his return against the Minnesota Wild, but was only able to play in four more contests before missing more time with an injury — this time he missed six games. So far, the Lightning have played 26 games and the forward has been available only 15 times. Which brings us to the first thing that Drouin must do to be successful, stay healthy.

This aspect of the game is outside of the player’s control. Injuries happen at all levels of hockey, but these issues have ultimately clipped Drouin’s wings during his NHL career. The fractured thumb in 2014 made it so his training camp amounted to “go play some games in the AHL before we plunge you into regular season action.” By the time he settled in at the NHL level, the likes of Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov had established themselves as deadly top-six options and there was no room for Drouin.

The “Triplet Line”was born after an early injury to Brett Connolly late last October, and there was no reason for head coach Jon Cooper to mess with a good thing. The trio helped pushed the Lightning to a Stanley Cup Final appearance, so it’s tough to argue with the results.

Still, an opportunity was given to Drouin to lock down top-line minutes earlier this year, but he was again set back by an injury.

It seems like every time the 5-foot-11, 188-pound forward gets any kind of momentum, he’s faced with adversity. This off-ice experience is invaluable for Drouin as a player, but not for a Lightning squad that is looking to claw back into the Atlantic Division’s top three teams.

If health is out of his control, then the second part of the successful season equation is not, and that’s making the most of the ice time he is given. That was the case on Wednesday when Drouin returned from a six-game absence. He led the Lightning to a 2-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks, scoring a goal and assisting on Jonathan Marchessault’s go-ahead power play goal late in the second period.

It was a simple play, but it’s the kind of thing that Drouin is capable of executing on a nightly basis. While fill-in players like Marchessault and Joel Vermin have helped keep the Lightning afloat while they’ve sorted out their IR list, none of those filler players has the upside that Drouin does. That’s why he has to play well when the chances are there. Cooper isn’t shy about rolling with hot lines and sticking with what works. If Drouin wants top-line minutes, he must give top-line performances. There won’t be many bones tossed his way.

Professional sports is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, so it’s easy to forget that Drouin notched 108 points in 46 QMJHL games just two years ago.

It’s not like he turned 20 and magically lost all of his talent. This is still the player that Steve Yzerman passed on Seth Jones to draft, and Drouin still has the talent to be a franchise cornerstone. He may have just snapped a nine-game pointless streak on paper, but so far his season has been chopped up into sections by injuries. That make Drouin somewhat difficult to evaluate right now.

He is doing his best to earn the title injury prone, but he’s one strong 25-game push away from earning another reputation entirely. The danger here is to assume that Drouin isn’t having a successful season unless he’s playing with Stamkos instead of Alex Killorn. While fans have had Drouin pegged on that wing since the second he was drafted, that doesn’t mean that’s where he needs to play.

Against the Ducks, Drouin looked comfortable on the second line and with the power-play time he was given. For the time being, the Lightning shouldn’t be too wrapped up in statistical output. They should be concerned with simply getting Drouin rolling as a professional. This is his second year in the league, but various things have prevented him from getting comfortable — from injuries to the emergence of the Triplet line.

If Drouin gets comfortable and can avoid the injury bug for a bit, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him push through the 40-point barrier. That would be (at least) an eight-point jump from what he managed a year ago, and would give him plenty to build on for the playoffs and 2015-16.

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