If it were up to Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin would be in the uniform of his Colorado Avalanche already, not holding out from the Tampa Bay Lightning. MacKinnon’s face lit up Thursday morning when asked if he hoped the Avs could swing a trade to acquire his former junior teammate, the player taken two spots behind him in the 2013 NHL draft.
“Playing with him would be awesome,” said MacKinnon, who won a Memorial Cup playing with Drouin for the Halifax Mooseheads in 2013. “That would be really fun. His skill is just sick. He’s just an unbelievable player. Whoever gets him will be very happy.”
The team that lands Drouin, currently suspended by the Lightning after he refused to play anymore for the team’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y., remains an open question. While the notoriously private Avalanche management isn’t publicly commenting on any potential interest in Drouin, Colorado as a destination makes a lot of sense on paper anyway.
The biggest reason might be MacKinnon himself, who with Drouin formed an unstoppable duo with the Mooseheads from 2011-13. In a combined 93 regular-season games together in 2012-13, they notched 180 points (105 for Drouin in 49 games, 75 for MacKinnon in 44). In the Memorial Cup playoffs, Drouin had 35 points in 17 games and MacKinnon 33 in the same number.
“His vision and hands are unbelievable,” MacKinnon said. “There would be so many times in practice where we couldn’t believe what we saw sometimes. He killed me in points in junior. And he’s gotten a lot faster since junior.”
MacKinnon’s NHL career has gone a lot better than Drouin’s since draft night in New Jersey. He won the Calder Trophy in 2014 and was the team’s second-leading scorer entering Thursday’s game with the Dallas Stars (41 points 53 games). Drouin was sent back to Halifax by the Lightning for the 2013-14 season and posted four goals and 32 points in 70 games as a rookie the next year.
After starting his sophomore season with the Lightning, he was sent down to Syracuse. After seven games with the Crunch, Drouin, through his agent, Allan Walsh, said he would not play anymore there and has requested a trade.
Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman has put no timetable on a trade, telling the team's website "Our attention and plan is to continue to seek a trade that helps us." It is believed Tampa Bay would like, at minimum, a top prospect or established player, preferably a defenseman with a right-handed shot.
The Avs, like most NHL teams, would like to add more quality right-hand D-men themselves, but they do have two good ones in Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie. It’s unlikely Avs GM Joe Sakic would part with either of them for a player who has yet to establish himself, especially in a season in which Colorado is a contender for a Western Conference playoff spot.
But the Avs also have some decisions to make about the ongoing makeup of their top three forward lines. Jarome Iginla, 38, currently is playing left wing—Drouin’s position—on a top line with MacKinnon and Matt Duchene. But Iginla has also spent some time on the third line of late, as his production and plus-minus numbers have fallen off. Entering Thursday, he had just one goal in his previous 11 games, and his minus-17 is lowest on the team.
Iginla told Bleacher Report earlier this season he will not approve of any trade, citing family reasons foremost. He has another year remaining on a three-year, $15.3 million no-trade-clause deal. Another top-nine left wing, Alex Tanguay, 36, is in the final year of a contract and has only three goals in 41 games.
A youngster such as Drouin might make for a very nice replacement for an Iginla or Tanguay up front. Avs coach and vice president of hockey operations, Patrick Roy, is known to be an admirer of Drouin as a player, having coached against him in junior with the Quebec Remparts. If MacKinnon hadn’t been available to the Avs with the No. 1 pick in 2013, they almost certainly would have taken Drouin if they were any lower on the selection order.
Assuming the Avs wouldn't part with any of their established young core that includes Johnson, Barrie, Duchene, MacKinnon and Landeskog, their most attractive trade prospects are 2015 first-round pick Mikko Rantanen and 2013 second-round defenseman Chris Bigras. But the Avs plan to have Rantanen as a franchise cornerstone, so he won't be leaving for Drouin.
The burning questions surrounding Drouin: Is he worth a lot in return? Has holding out while he still has a contract tarnished his reputation too much for Yzerman to get what he might want for him? Can Drouin make any real difference to a contending team, not having played an NHL game since Dec. 30?
There is a feeling among some in the GM community that Drouin indeed has tarnished his reputation greatly with the holdout, that refusing to play in the minors while under contract speaks badly of his character and is scaring off potential suitors.
Erik Erlendsson, the longtime Lightning beat writer for the Tampa Tribune, indicated the fit just was never right for Drouin in Tampa Bay.
“People criticize his statistics from last year, but they forget he played most of the time on a line with Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow,” Erlendsson said. “He’s a very talented player and it’s not hard to see why he went where he did in the draft. But obviously, things didn’t work out like everyone expected.”
Some have questioned Drouin’s toughness on the puck along the wall or in the corners. But did anyone expect the 5’11”, 188-pound 20-year-old to be a power forward? When it comes to advanced statistics, Drouin’s numbers look good. He had a 57.6 Corsi For Percentage last season and 54.9 in the 19 games he played this season.
If a MacKinnon-Drouin reunion doesn’t happen, other teams mentioned as a possible destination for Drouin, as reported by TSN's Bob McKenzie, include St. Louis, the New York Rangers, Minnesota, Montreal and Ottawa. But right now, Yzerman has all the control over what will happen, and he isn’t talking.
The trade deadline of Feb. 29 is getting closer, however, and Yzerman is smart enough to know his prize asset could deteriorate in value the longer this stalemate goes.
Said one NHL general manager, who asked to remain anonymous: "It's one of those tough spots for either GM. You don't want to be the guy who overpays for someone who isn't proven yet. And you don't want to be the guy who trades away a possible star for pennies on the dollar."