Two seemingly unrelated NHL stories broke over the weekend, but, upon further examination, they turned out to be closely tied to each other.
In the first, the Tampa Bay Lightning acknowledged that hotshot prospect Jonathan Drouin wanted out. Drouin, the third player chosen in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, is unhappy with his career trajectory in Tampa, where it has stalled on takeoff.
In the second, the Chicago Blackhawks lent defenceman David Rundblad to the Zurich Lions of the Swiss league, his NHL career over at the age of 25 after previous unmemorable stops in Ottawa and Arizona.
The link between the two? Rundblad was the primary return the Coyotes received from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for centre Kyle Turris back in December, 2011. Turris, like Drouin, was the third player chosen in an NHL entry draft (2007). Turris also didn't think he was getting a fair chance with the team that drafted him, and wanted to start over someplace else. The Coyotes eventually traded him to Ottawa, where he subsequently established himself as the team's No. 1 centre. Arizona got nothing comparable in return.
The moral of the story, not lost on Tampa's wily general manager Steve Yzerman, is to tread warily when approaching trades for high-end talents, because those sorts of transactions can backfire in a meaningful way.
The problem is always the same: How do you get real value in return for a player with big but unrealized potential at the NHL level?
There will be all kinds of teams willing to take Drouin off Yzerman's hands; fewer will part with established assets to make a deal happen. Drouin would surely appeal to the Colorado Avalanche, for example. There, he could be reunited with his Halifax Mooseheads junior linemate Nathan MacKinnon, who after an excellent first year and a so-so sophomore season appears to be back on track in his third.
MacKinnon's pattern is common among young players, even the most precocious. Development is rarely a straight-up progression, but a series of ups and downs that occur until a player gradually settles into NHL life and the night-to-night consistency it demands.
But Colorado, where coach Patrick Roy likes a run-and-gun style, doesn't have a lot of assets to offer Tampa – the Avalanche would not give up Gabriel Landeskog or Matt Duchene in that sort of a swap.
Yzerman's go-slow development philosophy, which is really Drouin's issue here, is a product of his background – two decades steeped in the Detroit Red Wings' tradition of putting most of their youngsters in the minors and waiting for them to be "overripe" before promoting them to the NHL level. By virtue of so many winning seasons, the Wings didn't have a lot of top-five draft choices to manage in Yzerman's time there (he was one of the last).
Nowadays, the NHL is a young man's league, so when a player such as Drouin sees MacKinnon thrive, and sees every other player chosen in the top 10 in that 2013 draft playing in the NHL, he figures he should be there too. Any growing pains can be overcome on the job rather than on the farm.
The Lightning clearly disagree, and assigned him to the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse, where he was scheduled to report Tuesday morning. The hope is that time will eventually resolve the matter – and either give Drouin a chance to enhance his trade value to the point where Yzerman can pull the trigger on a deal, or get him back to the NHL, where his career might find traction the next time around.
It's been a slow start to the season for the Lightning. Going into its Tuesday night game against the Calgary Flames, Tampa – a Stanley Cup finalist last spring – was two points out of a playoff spot in the tight Eastern Conference, with midseason approaching.
There remains uncertainty over Steven Stamkos's future – he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and a contract extension does not appear to be close.
It was thought that, when Drouin was drafted, he would eventually step in to play on a line with Stamkos, replacing Martin St. Louis, who was traded in 2014 to the New York Rangers (and retired last summer). Now, who knows?
Yzerman's hands are essentially tied – if Stamkos leaves, Tampa's needs will be far different than if he stays. So until Yzerman knows for sure the outcome of that negotiation, Drouin will likely hover in limbo.
Yzerman essentially said as much when commenting on Drouin's future, noting that his only interest is in doing what's best for the organization – it's difficult to imagine any circumstances in which he's going to pushed into an ill-advised trade just to satisfy an unhappy player. So with the NHL trade market still in a deep freeze, it could be a while before Drouin gets his wish, even if his availability has stirred interest in front offices around the league.