Reputations – good or bad – can develop with lightning-fast speed around the NHL. Reputations may not always be accurate or always be fair, but once a player develops one, it can be a hard thing to shake.
Did Eric Lindros ever overcome the reputation he developed when he refused to report to the Quebec Nordiques, the team that drafted him first overall in 1991? You could argue no – and that the decision cast a shadow over the rest of his career, even in the years when Lindros was the dominant forward in the NHL.
Jonathan Drouin, the disgruntled Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, is starting to develop a reputation of his own these days – and it isn't good.
A couple of weeks ago, Drouin's agent, Allan Walsh, went public with a trade demand he made on behalf of his client back in November. Drouin had had it with the slow arc of his NHL career in a Tampa uniform and wanted a change of scenery.
Drouin then upped the ante Wednesday night, staging a one-man wildcat strike by deciding not to play an American Hockey League game on behalf of the Lightning's minor-league affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, against the Toronto Marlboros.
Tampa suspended Drouin immediately, leaving him in limbo, not playing and, more importantly, not showing other NHL teams why they should trade for his rights.
And that's where the matter sits today, with Tampa general manager Steve Yzerman saying he is "actively and aggressively" trying to trade Drouin's rights, but unable to put a timetable on how long that might take – a day, a week, a month, next summer.
Yzerman is one tough cookie at the negotiating table, and so while a number of teams may have demonstrated "significant interest" in acquiring Drouin's rights, the Lightning GM suggested he "can't force a team to make a deal with me that I like."
No matter how the NHL may change and evolve over time, one fundamental thing doesn't change. Teams want players in their lineup that give them the best chance to win a championship, ones that put the collective whole ahead of individual success.
We all know that's a charade on some basic level.
Every NHL player is his own independent business, trying to maximize return on their developmental years, the smart ones realizing their bodies are diminishing assets as their career arcs move along. They're in it to win it but they're also in it for themselves. In a perfect world, those two goals eventually intersect.
Just last weekend, for example, Anze Kopitar Incorporated squeezed an eight-year, $80-million (U.S.) contract extension out of the Los Angeles Kings. Why? Because Kopitar was one of the driving forces behind the Kings' two Stanley Cup championships in 2012 and 2014. He has a reputation as a winner, which is why the Kings grudgingly acceded to virtually every one of his contract demands.
It's also why Patrick Kane (Ltd.) and his fellow Chicago Blackhawk Jonathan Toews (Inc.) are so revered – and so well compensated. They've won.
Drouin hasn't – not at the NHL level, where injuries have effectively stalled his career. That, according to Yzerman, was the primary reason they wanted him in Syracuse in the first place – to play games and show other teams that he was healthy and in game shape.
But probably the most telling observation came when Yzerman was asked to clarify what Drouin's status had to do with perseverance.
Yzerman told reporters in Tampa: "There are ups and downs throughout a player's career. Sometimes, they happen when you're 18, sometimes when you're 20, sometimes when you're 30 or beyond. Throughout the course of your career, you face adversity. Every player does … and everybody has a choice in how they handle it."
Now, Drouin is perfectly within his rights to do whatever he wants. He doesn't have to play hockey for Syracuse – or anywhere else for that matter.
But he is under contract to the Lightning, and under the current collective bargaining agreement, teams can exert a lot of control over players in their entry-level years. That is a right that players surrender when they sign a contract, one of the trade-offs they accept in exchange for the riches they can potentially earn.
Ultimately, something will break here – but Drouin did himself no favours with his actions Wednesday by cancelling a chance to showcase himself in front of dozens of scouts congregating in Toronto to watch him play. Yzerman, in his short time as a GM, has demonstrated an unwillingness to sell low. All of which leaves Drouin in even further limbo than he was before he walked out on his team.
Before he was ever drafted by the Lightning third overall in the NHL's 2013 entry draft, Drouin's reputation was mostly good. A smallish but extremely skilled player, he reminded scouts a little of Kane, someone with an excellent finishing touch, who could rattle off goals like no one's business.
That's the reputation he had. That's the reputation he needs to salvage – and sooner would be better than later because reputations, once developed, have a way of following someone around for a long time.