CHICAGO — The Lightning have a problem.
No, I’m not talking about the goaltending — this time.
In fact, the problem Tampa Bay has on its hands is of the good variety. There’s an abundance of young, up-and-coming talent in the organization.
In Thursday’s season opener against Boston, the Lightning put six rookies on the ice: forwards Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik and Ondrej Palat, and defensemen Radko Gudas, Andrej Sustr and Mark Barberio. That group doesn’t include Alex Killorn, who appeared in too many games last season to be classified as a rookie but had only 38 games of experience heading into this season.
Because of that, the likes of Brett Connolly and J.T. Brown were sent to Syracuse of the American Hockey League to continue developing.
That brings us to Jonathan Drouin, the No. 3 overall pick who was sent back to Halifax in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he will play for the rest of this season.
Many outside of the Lightning were surprised, some were even shocked, that the talented 18-year-old did not make the team.
That kind of thinking might stem from years of futility in the Lightning farm system. Drafting and developing has not exactly been a strength of this organization through the years, particularly in the 10-year span between the 1998 draft that produced Vinny Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Dmitry Afanasenkov and the 2008 draft that landed Steven Stamkos.
During a good portion of those years, the third overall pick in the draft would have been a virtual lock to make the roster out of training camp, whether that was because of the lack of talent at the NHL level or for the purpose of trying to sell tickets.
But since Steve Yzerman took control of the organization and implemented the draft-and-develop philosophy, the Lightning thought process is different.
Drouin is going to be one of the top players in a Tampa Bay uniform when he gets to this level. He’s just not there yet.
In his short career, Drouin has shown the ability to adapt quickly to whatever level he is playing. Less than two years ago, he was still playing midget level in Quebec before getting the call up to Halifax, where he quickly adapted to the better competition. He was considered a long shot to make Team Canada for the World Junior Championships as an under-aged player but he wound up in a top-six role.
The jump to the NHL level this year would have been much greater than any he had been able to adapt to up to this point.
With the more experienced young talent ready to make the jump to the NHL, the decision was made to send Drouin back for another year of play at the junior level. While there, he will be the key player for the Mooseheads, and he should log heavy minutes for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships.
So if all goes according to plan, by the time training camp comes around next season, Drouin will be ready to make the jump to the NHL.
It’s similar to the path the Florida Panthers took with Jonathan Huberdeau, the third overall pick in 2011. Huberdeau was sent back to juniors for another year of development, came back a year later and won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
So it might seem like the Lightning are doing the 18-year-old Drouin wrong, when if fact they are going about it right.