The Tampa Bay Lightning have seen several forward prospects come up through the system in recent years, including the team’s leading scorer, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, and Alex Killorn.
Injuries throughout the organization gave several players an opportunity for more ice time at both levels. It’s only a month into the 2014-15 season, but already we are seeing talented forwards in the AHL making an impression right away at the NHL level for the Lightning.
Tampa Bay’s first round pick in 2013, Jonathan Drouin, saw his pro career begin with a conditioning stint with the Syracuse Crunch after a thumb injury, but his stay in the American Hockey League (AHL) didn’t last long.
“He didn’t belong in this league,” Crunch head coach Rob Zettler said of Drouin. “He played a couple shifts and I hoped he’d be here for five games with us, but ultimately I wasn’t surprised he only stayed for two.”
Drouin was a difference maker in both games he played at the AHL level. In his first pro game October 17th against Springfield, Drouin stole a puck at the blue line in his defensive zone and blew past everyone on his way to picking the top shelf on Columbus Blue Jackets goaltending prospect Anton Forseberg to give the Crunch a 3-2 lead. His first pro goal, with 12:42 left in the third period, proved to be the game-winner. Drouin was also a +3 for the game, meaning he was on the ice for every goal his team scored.
“He’s a special talent,” coach Zettler said of Drouin. “A gifted hockey player that makes a lot of things happen. We won two games when he was with us and he was a big reason why.”
It was much of the same the next night for Drouin, who was dominant on back-to-back nights with the Crunch. He tallied assists on the Crunch’s first and last goals of the night in a 4-2 win over Binghamton, while also recording what Drouin said post-game as a possible career-high shots on goal.
“Seven is probably one of my highest shots in a game,” Drouin said. “We [coach Zettler] talked about it a little this morning, about taking more shots when you have the chance to shoot. Sometimes I’m looking for that perfect play and sometimes it’s not there. Put the puck on net, grab some rebounds and drive the net.”
Drouin was called back up to Tampa Bay after just two games in the AHL after it was clearly evident that the injury hadn’t affected his game, and that he just needed to get his legs under him before stepping onto NHL ice. His ability to find the open man and set up his teammates has been clear since his junior career (165 assists in 128 games in the QMJHL), and has continued to show itself in the short sampling of his pro career.
“Obviously I’m a pass-first guy,” Drouin said after his second pro game. “When I see a play I try to make it. But again, I got shots on net and created some plays. Like I said it’s easy to play with those two guys [linemates Jonathan Marchessault and Cedric Paquette], they’re smart and they go to the right areas.”
One of his linemates from Syracuse – second-year pro Cedric Paquette – has joined Drouin in the NHL and is also making quite an impact, picking up where he left off in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs against Montreal.
Paquette tallied his first and second career NHL goals in a 4-2 win over the Calgary Flames on November 6th and followed that up with another goal in his next game against Columbus. While Paquette has netted three goals in seven games, it is his two-way game and ability away from the puck that has been his ticket back up to the NHL.
It seems that, every season, the Lightning bring forwards up through the system and they make an immediate impact. It should come as no surprise that Drouin is in the NHL and playing well, but players like Paquette and third-year pro Marchessault are right around the corner and primed for more success in pro hockey in the near future.
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