ESTERO — To keep or not to keep, that is the question the Lightning face regarding top pick Jonathan Drouin.
As Tampa Bay heads into the final preseason game Saturday against Florida at BB&T Center, the roster is on the verge of being finalized. But it’s not there yet.
Competition has been close among forwards vying for spots and several things factor into the decision of whether to keep Drouin with the team or send him back to Halifax in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
If Drouin, the third overall pick in the 2013 draft, is sent back to his junior club, he must remain there for the entire season. Tampa Bay does not have to make that decision until Drouin plays in his ninth game for the Lightning. But if he appears in 10 games, the clock on his entry-level contract will begin, allowing Drouin to be a restricted free agent after three years.
“Playing in (junior) leagues, it’s good hockey it really is,’’ Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. “It’s not the end of the world if a player has to go back, but we certainly want to give him every opportunity before making that because it is final.
“Mostly, we want him playing. And if he’s not going to play regular (in the NHL), I want him playing. I don’t really have a timetable on it’s because we do have the luxury ...to stagger their games and delay it for as long as you really want. So, it’s not like we are under a time crunch or anything.’’
Drouin will get another chance to showcase his game in the preseason finale, playing on the top line with Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis. It’s been a steady progression for the 18-year-old, who started training camp in lower-line role and learned the defensive side of the game at center. Eventually, he moved back to the wing and joined the top line, playing with Stamkos in Tuesday’s game in Nashville and with St. Louis on Thursday against Florida.
“You definitely want to seem him improve, and I think (Thursday) was probably the best game he has played with us,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “And it’s baby steps. He’s 18 and he’s just trying to get his feel and, as any 18-year-old, he’s trying to survive.
“He’s done a pretty good job. (Thursday) he kept up with the pace. He wanted the puck on his stick, he made plays and and made errors like anybody else. But it’s much more gratifying to see that he’s improving every day instead of getting worse every day, so that’s a good sign.’’
Drouin has been in camp for more than three weeks, since reporting for rookie camp on Sept. 4. In that time he has become more comfortable with his game on the ice, more familiar with his surroundings and more confident as he goes about his business at the rink.
“Every day it’s been about getting better and better,’’ Drouin said. “I think I’m getting into it. The second preseason game was better than the first preseason game. As practices go on, I think I’m getting into the swing of the team and the game at the NHL, so it’s the good part that it didn’t take that long. I’m pretty happy with that.’’
Though Drouin has yet to register a goal in game action, he scored in a shootout and set up Stamkos for a late goal in Nashville. His game is not being judged by his offensive production, but by his steady progression, which ultimately will be the determining factor on whether he stays this season or returns to junior.
What the Lightning have to determine is where his game will be one or two months into the season and whether he would be better off in the NHL or being a top guy in junior.
“He looks more comfortable here than he did in the rookie tournament games, and that’s a good sign that he is slowly catching up to the game,’’ Cooper said. “But it’s going to take time with him. I just think, take where he was drafted out of the picture and just let the player develop and let’s see how he develops over time.’’