TAMPA — The two sat down for breakfast at a downtown Montreal hotel, each not knowing what to expect.
Before the Lightning's season finale April 9 in Montreal, wing Jonathan Drouin, 21, joined coach Jon Cooper for a brutally honest, clear-the-air conversation. It might have been a turning point in their relationship and Drouin's tenure in Tampa Bay.
For maybe the first time, they reflected on the previous two years and how they had gotten to this point: Drouin, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 draft, had requested a trade in January and held out at home for six weeks, returning after he didn't get dealt at the deadline. Drouin had started his reclamation just two days earlier in a callup from AHL Syracuse.
Drouin said that at the breakfast, he and Cooper shared their sides of the story. They also shared some blame.
"We probably said some things to each other that we'd thought about but had never said," Cooper said. "I told him this was my thought: 'This is what I believed when I was doing things, but now, listening to you, maybe there were some things I shouldn't have done. Now that I look back, maybe I was wrong.' And vice versa.
"This is what I was thinking: 'This is what I wanted out of you, this is what I got, and you made this decision.' And maybe he sits there and goes, 'Maybe I shouldn't have done that.' But when you get to the bottom bones of it, (I was) just trying to make Jo Drouin the best he could be."
The Lightning got the best out of Drouin in the playoffs. He delivered a dazzling, dynamic performance, tying for third on the team with 14 points and helping fill the void left by captain Steven Stamkos, out with a blood clot.
"Watching him in the playoffs reminded me of him in juniors, the way he dominated," said Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon, Drouin's good friend and juniors linemate with Halifax.
THE DROUIN SAGA
Drouin said there was not one single moment when he realized he wanted to stay with the Lightning. A lot went into the evolution from agent Allan Walsh calling Drouin's situation in Tampa Bay "untenable" in January to Drouin rescinding his trade request in an end-of-the-season meeting with general manager Steve Yzerman.
There was Drouin's tight bond with teammates, who supported him throughout. There was how Drouin was used in the playoffs, put in a top-six role that befits his world-class skill. And there was a chance to win a Stanley Cup, something the Lightning has a better chance to achieve with Drouin here, starting the season on a line with Stamkos. In Saturday's 5-3 preseason finale win against the Predators, Drouin had a goal (assisted by Stamkos), two assists and six shots.
"They're going to do some damage," goalie Ben Bishop said.
Drouin said that breakfast with Cooper helped them get on the same page. They didn't provide specifics of the talk. Since then, Drouin has looked like a player who believes he has the trust and confidence of his coach, which is a game-changer for any young star.
"I'm happy to be back here," Drouin said. "I want to play here."
Drouin had his reasons for the trade request.
His ice time often fluctuated with the Lightning, and he was an occasional healthy scratch. The latter included most of the 2015 playoffs, when Jonathan Marchessault, among the group of extra players brought in for the postseason, got in an Eastern Conference final game over him.
As crazy as it sounds, Cooper believes Drouin's time away from the game might have been the best thing to happen to the wing and the team. Drouin did some self-evaluation, realizing he had to shoot more and go to the "dirty areas" on the ice, which he applied in Syracuse and Tampa Bay. He entered the playoffs motivated and in great shape, physically and mentally.
After Drouin and Cooper regrouped, it seemed as though the forward didn't worry that if he made a mistake in a game, he would be dropped down a few lines or lose playing time.
Said the Oilers' Connor McDavid, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft and who played on a line with Drouin at last month's World Cup for North America: "He's got all the tools to be an unbelievable player."
"I've always trusted Jo had it in him," Cooper said. "It was just a matter of being more consistent."
Stamkos said sometimes adversity can make a player better and realize what he has.
"(Drouin) went through it," Stamkos said. "At the end of the day, he made the right decision, and that's all that matters. He's learned a lot, even in the two months he wasn't playing. He was in better shape. He was in a better mental spot. He prepared for the game. He was doing everything he could to prove that he wanted to be here and be that elite player we know he can be."
The situation might have also helped Cooper become a better coach. Everyone learns from their mistakes. There was a noticeable difference in the playoffs in how Cooper discussed Drouin with the media. Cooper — who once said "There's two nets" when referring to Drouin's defensive shortcomings while discussing his lack of playing time — was effusive in his praise. He said Drouin was a "joy to coach" and how "'unbelievably proud" he was of Drouin. Cooper called Drouin "as gifted as I've seen."
"Ultimately, my job is try to get the best out of our players," Cooper said. "At the time, I was trying to get the best out of Jo Drouin. Whether I was doing the right thing or not, I'll let it be up for debate forever. … It was probably a little bit of a humbling experience for me, for Steve Yzerman, for Jo Drouin. Maybe humbling isn't the right word. It was a learning experience. I will be the last person to sit here and hold a grudge against somebody. I've got no grudge against (Drouin)."
Drouin, a restricted free agent after this season, doesn't appear to hold one, either. He said late last season there might come a time where he regrets his trade request and how it was handled.
"It's still early to say," Drouin said. "It's definitely not the way you want to do it. But it worked out. You've got to live with it no matter what."
Times sports columnist Martin Fennelly contributed to this report.