BRANDON — Teammates welcomed Jonathan Drouin back with open arms, including stick taps at his first skate.
Coaches loved having him, too, immediately thrusting Drouin in a top-six role and power play duty, the dynamic 21-year-old wing rewarding their faith with goals in each of his first two games back with Tampa Bay, including a winner.
But how will Lightning fans react Wednesday in Game 1 of the first-round series against the Red Wings? It's Drouin's first game at Amalie Arena since his trade request became public and his six-week suspension.
Fans called him a "quitter," "crybaby" and "spoiled brat" after Drouin walked away from AHL Syracuse on Jan. 20. Drouin knows some aren't happy with him, and he respects that. He owns it: "I did this stuff.''
"I've got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. I've got stuff to prove," Drouin said. "You want to show that you deserve to be in the NHL, you deserve your shot. I have a lot to show the fans and to myself and our team this year."
Drouin is off to a good start, and if his first two games back with Tampa Bay are any indication, he could be an x-factor in the Lightning's playoff run, a much needed one without injured star Steven Stamkos. Think about that. For months, a disgruntled Drouin wanted out of Tampa Bay. Now he can play a large part in the Lightning chasing a Stanley Cup.
"If you had asked a month or two ago, we all would have thought it'd never happen," TSN's Scott Cullen said. "Going into the playoffs, it's one of the more compelling stories in the whole league."
And Drouin — with his play on the ice — can change the narrative.
"What hasn't been written is what Jo is going to do in the playoff run," said Jon Goyens, Drouin's former midgets coach who counseled him during his six-week suspension. "He's not a kid I would ever bet against."
Goyens has known Drouin since he was 9. And when Drouin decided — either on his own, or on advice from others — to walk away from Syracuse, sparking an indefinite suspension, not even Goyens saw it coming.
"I was a little bit surprised," he said.
But Goyens welcomed Drouin in for workouts in the Montreal area during his suspension. It'd mostly be solo or one-on-one, Drouin trained with Erasmo Saltarelli, a former goalie and the general manager of the midget-AAA Lac St-Louis Lions. Drouin would talk over power play strategies with Goyens, then went on the ice with the team of 15-17 year-olds and taught them. Drouin, who said he tried to avoid watching NHL games on TV, would attend some Lions home games.
"He's a hockey savant, a hockey junkie," Goyens said. "You saw that helped him deal with being away from the game. You just saw he was hungry to get back to it."
Goyens saw Drouin mature, and sensed how much he missed playing. And a few days after Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman didn't deal Drouin at the Feb. 29 trade deadline, Drouin called the Hall of Famer and asked to return.
"The deadline was a real sudden realization that he wasn't going anywhere," Goyens said. "There was no handbook on how to handle this situation. … It was about talking about logical stuff and seeing him come to a certain realization on his own."
Drouin said his 10-game return stint with AHL Syracuse was extremely valuable.
In playing big minutes, in all situations, Drouin rekindled his confidence. Knowing a knock on him was being a pass-first forward, Drouin shot more, 39 total, racking up nine goals. Oversleeping a meeting was a minor obstacle, a mistake he owned up to. He didn't think too far ahead about a callup, which came Thursday.
"He earned his way back," Cooper said.
The fact that Lightning teammates had texted, called and visited Drouin on a trip to Montreal during his suspension was huge in making him more comfortable. "We never thought he was going to do that, ask for a trade and go home," said center Cedric Paquette. "It was surprising for us, for everybody. That's why we're happy to get him back. I don't know how (the fans) will react, but if we welcomed him back, they should do the same."
Goyens said no matter what, even five to 10 years from now, people might rip Drouin for his actions this season. "Lot of people ask me, what kind of decisions were you making at 20-21?" Goyens said. "It wasn't always the greatest."
That's what makes this story so delicious, as improbable as it might be.
"Hopefully," center Brian Boyle said, "we keep writing it for a couple months."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.