NEWARK, N.J. — As improbable as it sounds, it was almost like Jonathan Drouin never left.
Drouin, 21, called up by the Lightning on Thursday, joined the morning-skate huddle at the Prudential Center before the game with the Devils and was greeted by stick taps from teammates, sparking a small grin from the once-disgruntled wing.
"When I walked in, everybody was happy to see me," Drouin said. "I'm definitely happy to see the guys back."
Many people likely never expected to see Drouin in a Lightning uniform again and getting a second chance — not after the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2013 requested a trade in November, and certainly not after he walked away from AHL Syracuse on Jan. 20, a move that got him suspended by the team. He said then through agent Allan Walsh that he wouldn't continue with the organization in "any capacity."
But with the Lightning ravaged by injuries, including to captain Steven Stamkos (blood clot) and Ryan Callahan (lower body), it was in desperate need of skill up front in its playoff push.
And Drouin, with nine goals in his last nine games with the Crunch after returning from his suspension in early March, had given general manager Steve Yzerman a reason to call him Wednesday afternoon. Drouin declined to address whether his trade request remains and if he thinks he has a future in Tampa Bay beyond this season. He said he is 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 (we) can't ask any more than that.
"We need him."
Drouin has a chance to have a top-six role. He joined Vladislav Namestnikov and Alex Killorn on the second line for Thursday's game and had the winning goal in a 4-2 victory over the Devils. He also was on the power play that entered the day ranked 26th. Cooper said Drouin gives his team, which had scored two or fewer goals in four of its previous six games, "another threat," making it deeper up front.
"You can tell in the morning skate that he's very hungry," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "He's a world-class talent. He's got the speed, got the hands, got the sense for the game."
Drouin said he believed that coming back was a possibility but it was up to him to prove he deserved it in Syracuse. After not getting dealt at the Feb. 29 trade deadline, Drouin called Yzerman and asked to return to the AHL. He was dynamic on the ice, scoring nine goals in 10 games, and respectful off it. His only blip was missing a team meeting because he slept through his alarm, leading to a one-game scratch.
Drouin said he and Yzerman are on good terms and there's "no bad blood" with the coaching staff.
Any regrets about how he handled the situation?
"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."
By calling up Drouin for the last two games of the regular season, he will accrue another NHL 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 will be dealt this summer, maybe before the draft, Yzerman, when asked if Drouin could be with the Lightning beyond this season, replied, "Sure."
"Things change over time," he 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 appreciated how teammates reached out to him, via phone call or text message, while he was suspended and in Syracuse. Center Tyler Johnson called him "family." Now Drouin has 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."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.