BRANDON — The Lightning relied more on rookies than any other team last season.
A league-high eight played in at least 40 games. Thirteen saw action overall. Two, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, were finalists for the Calder Trophy, the league's rookie of the year award.
But wing Jonathan Drouin, the hyped third overall pick in the 2013 draft, spent the year back with Halifax in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
So though it seems like a virtual certainty Drouin not only will make the Lightning next season but make a big impact, forgive the 19-year-old for not making any guarantees.
"I'm closer than I was last year," Drouin said Wednesday, when the Lightning opened its five-day development camp at the Ice Sports Forum. "But it's not given to you. They proved it to me last year."
Drouin was definitely disappointed about not making the Lightning last season, but he believes that in the end, it's going to help him. He believes he rounded his game more with a third year in juniors, improving his faceoffs, getting stronger defensively and becoming a leader as captain.
"I think I'm a better player," he said.
Drouin has always been a gifted scorer, racking up 108 points (79 assists) in the regular season last year, along with a league-leading 41 in the playoffs. But it was the other areas of his game the Lightning was impressed by the most. Drouin wasn't just taking shots, he was blocking them.
"As the year went on, Jonathan got better and better," general manager Steve Yzerman said. "What I really like is when he went back (to juniors), he was the No. 1 penalty killer, ran the power play, played in all situations. We watched him play. He was dominating at both ends of the rink. His game evolved over one year. He got the opportunity there to do it, and I believe he's a better player because of it."
Drouin admitted he didn't acclimate well enough to the speed of the NHL game last preseason. With Johnson, Palat and Richard Panik emerging, the Lightning thought Drouin would develop better in juniors than playing on its fourth line.
"Looking back on it, if we kept him on our team, I think he would have been fine by the end of the year," Yzerman said. "But we wanted to make a decision on him, and we were moving all these other young guys, and we can only move in so many.
"We didn't know Palat and Tyler would have the years (they had). (We) weren't sure they were going to be regulars in the lineup. Couldn't move them all in at the same time."
Yzerman understood the decision would sting Drouin — who likely had never been sent back before — especially after being named MVP of all Canadian junior leagues the year before.
"I was 18 when I got sent down," Drouin said. "It's not like it was my last chance to make this team."
Drouin is more comfortable and prepared this time, in better shape and stronger, knowing it's a different game in the NHL. "I just have to prove I can play," he said.
Lightning director of player development Stacy Roest watched Drouin often last season and believes he took a huge step forward. Roest pointed out that "playing against men" in the NHL is a big change and Drouin made the adjustment.
"You can see the quickness out there. The puck skills and smart have always been there," Roest said. "Now the consistency is better. To me, he looked a lot faster. He looks really good."
Yzerman knows his team will be young at forward again next season, so he hopes players such as Drouin, Brett Connolly and Richard Panik give it a boost like Johnson, Palat and Alex Killorn did last season.
For Drouin, his time may finally have come.
"There's a big difference between 18 and 19, and he's learned a lot in a year," Yzerman said. "And he's hungry and motivated to make this team."
NOTES: Defenseman Slater Koekkoek, coming off right shoulder surgery, is participating in only noncontact drills this week but said he'll be ready for the season. … Left wing Adam Erne suffered a "tweak" and will be limited to skating drills as precaution. … Center Matthew Peca is doing only off-ice workouts. … The Lightning hired former GM Jay Feaster as its executive director of community hockey development.
. FAST FACTS
Lightning development camp
When/where: Through Sunday; Ice Sports Forum, Brandon.
Who: Prospects including 2013 top draft pick Jonathan Drouin and 2014 top pick Anthony DeAngelo.
Today: Goalies, 12:30 p.m., North Rink. Skaters, power skating, 8:45 and 10:30 a.m., North Rink; 9:30 and 11:15 a.m., South Rink. All, practice, 1:30 p.m., North and South rinks (two groups).
Roster and full schedule, lightning.nhl.com.