Jonathan Drouin welcomed back by Lightning: 'We need him'
As improbable as it sounds, it was almost like Jonathan Drouin never left.
Drouin, 20, called up by the Lightning Thursday, joined the pre-morning skate huddle at the Prudential Center and was greeted by stick taps from teammates, sparking a small grin from the touted wing.
"When I walked in, everybody was happy to see me," Drouin said. "I'm definitely happy to see the guys back."
There were likely many that never expected to see Drouin in a Lightning uniform again, getting this storybook second chance, not after he requested a trade in November, and certainly not after he walked away from AHL Syracuse Jan. 20, sparking a suspension. But with the Lightning ravaged by injuries, both to captain Steven Stamkos (blood clot) and Ryan Callahan (lower body), it is in desperate need of skill up front with two games to go.
And Drouin, who had nine goals in his last nine games with the Crunch since returning from suspension, gave GM Steve Yzerman a reason to call him Wednesday afternoon. Drouin declined to address whether his trade request remains, or whether he thinks there's a future beyond this season in Tampa Bay. He's just focused on playing hockey, and a playoff run.
"Jo Drouin earned this callup," coach Jon Cooper said. (The trade request) is what he felt he had to do. He's a big part of the Tampa Bay Lightning and a big part of us. Do players look at him differently in the room? Not at all. Do coaches look at him (differently)? No. He had a belief in something and he stood by his ground. Can't say anything is wrong with that. I do know he's come back to help us win. And you talk to the coaches and everyone down in Syracuse, and he was phenomenal down there. That's what you want. You want the kids that want to play and he's clearly proven, especially in the last month and a half that he wants to be a hockey player, and can't ask any more than that.
"We need him."
Drouin will get a chance at a top-six role, at least for now, joining Vladislav Namestnikov and Alex Killorn on the second line for Thursday's skate. He was on the power play unit too, along with Valtteri Filppula, Jason Garrison, Matt Taormina, who was also called up. Cooper said Drouin gives his team "another threat," making them deeper up front.
"You can tell in the morning skate that he's very hungry," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "He was very sharp. Looked great. Very excited to see him. He's a world class talent. He's got the speed, got the hands, got the sense for the game."
Drouin said he felt coming back was a possibility.
"It was up to me to play well in Syracuse," he said.
Drouin said the excitement to play hockey again drove him in his return to the Crunch, when he scored nine goals in a 10 game span. Taormina, who played with Drouin in Syracuse, said Drouin had a great attitude and was welcomed back instantly. They accepted Drouin's apology when he slept through his alarm and missed a team meeting, sparking a one-game scratch. "It's what happened all year long, guys missed meetings and stuff like that," Taormina said. "He accepted it, learned from it."
Drouin said he and Yzerman are on "good terms," and that there's "no bad blood" with the coaching staff. That being said, Drouin declined to elaborate on whether he could be with the Lightning beyond this season. Drouin also wouldn't say whether his trade request is still in play.
"Right now, I'm just going to play hockey. We put that stuff aside for now. I'm here to help the team and go from there."
Any regrets how this was handled?
"It's hard to say right now," Drouin said. "I've said that before. Maybe looking back in a couple years, I might want to do a few things differently. Right now, it's hard to say. Too early."
Yzerman said he tries to keep every door open, so he wasn't necessarily surprised Drouin is back playing with the organization. Yzerman said the injuries created an opportunity for Drouin, and that the wing did everything to earn his callup, from his play to his attitude and attention to detail in Syracuse. By calling up Drouin for the last two games, that means he'll be able to accrue another season, meaning he can be an unrestricted free agent in 2021 instead of 2022.
"Ultimately, we're trying to win games," Yzerman said.
Though it's still likely Drouin is dealt this summer, maybe before the draft, when asked if Drouin could be with the Lightning beyond this season, Yzerman said, "Sure."
"Things change over time," Yzerman said. "I'll do what's best for the team, best for the organization. A lot of strange things have happened, and potentially could continue to happen. I don't close the door on anything."
Drouin said it was "huge" to have teammates reach out to him, via phone call or text, while he was holding out and back in Syracuse. Now Drouin could get a chance to spark a Lightning playoff run. Imagine that.
"It's quite a story," goalie Ben Bishop said. "There's not many like it."