There’s a growing passion for skill in the hockey world, and it’s not unfounded. We’ve seen borderline NHLers initially stick around thanks to their penchant for knuckle-chucking eventually get annexed to the minors and sent to pasture, while young talents such as Vlad Tarasenko and Filip Forsberg have electrified crowds around the league. I even wrote about skill over will earlier today.
The NHL has always valued skill, but as it’s become more evident it’s going to be necessary to play in the bigs, teams are realizing they can beef players up, but they can’t teach the hockey sense and puck skills that are innate within goal-scorers.
This clear trend has made smart fans take notice and root for their team to draft talent over size; speed over strength. And hey, that’s excellent.
It also makes some wonder why the Tampa Bay Lightning are hesitant to insert burgeoning star Jonathan Drouin into their lineup, which is a fair question.
My best answer is that it’s simply a matter of strength, development and his playing style versus the style played in the NHL playoffs.
In the poor man’s version of his situation, I remember getting called up to play in the American Hockey League for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. In junior and the NCAA, I was a goal scorer. I was 6-foot-2, 185 pounds - not the strongest kid in the world, but I had more than enough size to get where I needed to go to demonstrate what I could do around the net.
In the AHL - even compared to the ECHL - I simply couldn’t get there. My opponents were just too big and strong, and since I couldn’t use the skills that separated me from the pack at lower levels, I was borderline useless.
In contrast, my then-teammate Tim Jackman - career fourth-line NHL forward known best for his willingness to fight for his teammates, over say, his penchant for squaring off pucks while stickhandling - scored 15 times and put up 36 points in 44 games before getting recalled to the NHL.
He was always in the blue paint, out-muscling guys for rebounds and winning territorial battles for ice so he could tip pucks in. His brawn was a bigger offensive attribute than having actual offensive attributes.
Drouin had a fine enough rookie season in the developmental department, tallying 32 points in 70 games.
The thing is, if Drouin isn’t putting up points, he isn’t doing anything of value, not at this age anyway, not at his current level of development. Then you start to worry about his inexperience not just not helping, but actually costing you. In these playoffs, it only takes a moment to turn a game, to turn a series.
And remember, it’s only getting harder.
His shrug-worthy 32 regular season points include all the times the Lightning played the Buffalos, Arizonas and Edmontons. They include nights against sleepy teams and back-up goalies. Hell, his 32 points includes four goals ... three of which came on the power play, which only further emphasizes the point I’m driving this bus towards: the kid has ample talent, when he can use it.
The NHL playoffs are down to six great teams who are firing on all cylinders, starting amazing goaltenders and beating the living snot out of each other.
You can’t fault head coach Jon Cooper for believing his player - who was limited in his ability to use his skills because of his lack of physical development - would be rendered entirely useless with the dial turned up higher.
I’m not sitting here saying Drouin isn’t good enough, isn’t going to be good enough, or even that he couldn’t drop into Game 6 for the Lightning and help.
I’m saying I understand why Cooper may be hesitant to use him.