TAMPA — Top draft picks come with lofty expectations and a bright spotlight from the moment their name is announced and they step up on stage on draft day.
That is the first step of a process that extends into the summer, rookie camp, the start of training camp, into the first preseason game and, eventually, the first regular-season game. Eyes focus a little sharper on every move, ears perk up to hear every word, and stories are written a little longer to account for it all.
Jonathan Drouin, the third overall pick in the June draft, is in the midst of that process after appearing in his first preseason game with Tampa Bay on Thursday at The Forum. The 5-foot-11, 194-pounder skated with 2011 first-round pick Vlad Namestnikov and skilled winger Nikita Kucherov.
By all accounts, Drouin is handling the scrutiny just fine to this point, as he begins to get comfortable in his new surroundings.
“You can see he’s starting to open up verbally a little bit more, and all the young guys are quiet at the start ... but he is gradually looking more and more comfortable, just watching him play,’’ Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said.
Drouin has begun to blend in while playing a position he’s not necessarily comfortable with. Or at least, not overly experienced.
For the previous 18 months, Drouin played left wing for Halifax alongside center Nathan MacKinnon, the No. 1 overall pick by Colorado in June. But since arriving for rookie camp this month, the Lightning have shifted him to the middle to see if he might fit into that role.
Drouin played center at the midget level and filled in on the top line for Halifax when MacKinnon missed time with an injury last season. So the position is not completely unfamiliar to him.
“The D zone is a little harder, you can’t stand on the defenseman, you have to be there and you’re depended on down low, so that’s the biggest thing,’’ Drouin said. “I think, obviously, they think I’m a smart player, so they wanted me to play both positions, and whatever is open and where they want me to play, I’ll play. I’m not really worried if it’s left wing, right wing or center.’’
The Lightning are not just blindly putting Drouin into a position where he might not be comfortable, and nothing is set in stone. While he has been playing center in training camp and did so for one of the prospect tournament games in Coral Springs this month, the team is not married to the idea.
“It just seemed that playing on the wing (at the rookie tournament) that he didn’t get that many touches with the puck, and he’s the type of player you want to have him have the puck,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “So if you can put him in that sort of position, and again nothing is set in stone, but so far it’s worked. Now we’ll see how he is in the defensive zone and stuff like that. But more based on his hockey IQ, his vision, his smarts and the fact that he has the puck more.’’
There is still a ways to go before a final decision on whether Drouin will remain with the team needs to be made or what position he will ultimately play. Tampa Bay has five preseason games remaining before the final 23-man roster will be determined. And even then, should Drouin be a part of that roster, the Lightning have nine games to decide to keep him up or send him back to Halifax before the clock starts ticking on his contract.
In the meantime, Drouin continues to show more signs of becoming acclimated to his surroundings. With a support staff that includes the likes of Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis and other veterans, Drouin will begin to assimilate himself into the atmosphere the team is trying to create.
“We want our veterans to lead by example and set the tone for who the Tampa Bay Lightning are,’’ Yzerman said. “We want young players coming into the organization and seeing how the veteran players conduct themselves ... take young guys under their wing and make them feel comfortable but also let them know this is how we do it and this is the expectation.’’