TAMPA, Fla. — The added emphasis teams are placing on skating and passing has turned NHL rinks into super speedways, but for Lightning third-year winger Jonathan Drouin, the pace of play feels more each day like a casual drive than a drag race.
That at least is how Drouin’s coach, Jon Cooper sees it.
“I think the game’s starting to slow down for Jo,’’ Cooper said.
There’s plenty of evidence to support Cooper’s theory, but if he wanted to the former attorney could submit Drouin’s set up of the goal Steven Stamkos scored during the Lightning’s 3-2 victory over the Devils last Saturday as Exhibit A.
After picking up a loose puck just inside his own blue line, Drouin skated out of his own end and weaved his way through two defenders at center ice, where he momentarily lost his balance and fell to one knee but never lost momentum or the puck.
After quickly regaining his balance, Drouin crossed over into the Devils’ zone, looked to his right and then dropped a pass back to his left to Ondrej Palat, who fed Stamkos for the one-timer that gave the Lightning their first goal.
A year ago, Cooper said, Drouin probably would have just dumped the puck in on that play, especially after he lost his balance, and while that would not have been a bad choice, Drouin’s decision to keep the play alive shows just how well he’s adapted to the pace of the NHL game.
“You watch him and he just seems to have a much higher confidence level with the puck on his stick now,’’ Cooper said. “I think last year at this time he was still getting a feel for what he could do in this league, but you look at him now and he’s making plays all over the ice.’’
And in all situations.
Drouin scored the Lightning’s first goal of the season during a power play midway through their 6-4 opening night win over Detroit when he walked in on Red Wings goalie Petr Mrazek off the right side boards and roofed a wrist shot into the upper right-hand corner of the net.
Later on, and again while on the power play, Drouin helped to extend the Lightning’s lead by taking a cross-ice pass from Victor Hedman and feeding the puck down low through two Red Wings defenders to Alex Killorn, who tapped an easy redirection past Mrazek for his first goal of the year.
“The game has slowed down a little bit for me,’’ Drouin said. “But it’s not just that. I’m getting used to the players I’m playing with more and the system we’re running and when that happens you don’t think as much. You just kind of go out there and play your game.’’
Drouin’s game has always been a dynamic one. He scored 95 goals and set up 194 others in the 128 games he played during his last two years of junior hockey with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The Lightning expected more of the same when Drouin came to the NHL, but he scored only four goals in 70 games during his first season and scored only four again during his turbulent 21-game second season. That lack of scoring was the least of his problems, though.
A penchant for taking too many chances that led to breaks the other way and a lack of responsibility in the defensive end created a rift between Drouin and the Lightning that nearly led to a divorce after Drouin famously asked for trade last November.
A strong playoff performance and a meeting with Cooper in Montreal during the offseason not only helped to clear the air, it also helped Drouin gain a better understanding of what’s expected of him at both ends of the ice.
“This is the NHL and if you don’t play your D-side here you sit the bench,’’ he said. “That’s just how it is. And if you take a shift off or make one little mistake it’ll probably be in the back of your net, and I had to learn that.
“And I’m still not where I need to be in terms of playing defense. I’m way better than I used to be, but I also realize now that it’s all really just a matter of skating and playing hard and bringing a little more and staying on top of guys.’’
Drouin is one of those guys opponents are trying to stay on top of. With each passing game, though, that’s becoming increasingly more difficult to do, in part because Drouin is gaining confidence at a pace that nearly matches the speed of the game he’s playing.
“This is probably the most confident he’s been,’’ Stamkos said. “You can tell because if you’ve got confidence you’re feeling the puck a lot better and you’re more willing to try things and make plays and he’s doing that. He’s really playing well right now.’’
What Cooper likes is that he’s playing smarter.
“He’s always been a headsy player, and we’re seeing more of that,’’ Cooper said. “I mean, he knows when to bail out on a play and when to chip one in and you have to encourage that, even with a guy of his skill set, because sometimes you do have to punt and just get the puck in deep. But guys of his nature get a little more leeway to make plays, and that’s what he’s doing.’’