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Lightning's Jonathan Drouin aims for breakout season

Jonathan Drouin darted into the Penguins zone Tuesday night, collecting a pass from captain Steven Stamkos.

Then came showtime.

Drouin, 20, noticed veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy was flat-footed, undressing him with a filthy inside-outside move, then flicking a wrist shot over goalie Matt Murray's right shoulder.

"You're going to see a lot more like that — enjoy," texted retired NHL forward Bobby Smith, the owner of Drouin's former junior team, the Halifax Mooseheads. "Think it's going to be a breakout season for Jo."

It sure looks like it could be. Drouin has dazzled this preseason with three highlight-reel goals in four games, displaying the confidence and assertiveness that was fleeting during his roller-coaster rookie year. Drouin said there are "flashes" where he feels like he did in juniors, where he became one of the NHL's top prospects and No. 3 overall pick in 2013.

More important, Drouin — a healthy scratch in 20 of the Lightning's 26 playoff games — is showing, at both ends of the ice, he's ready for a top-six role while playing alongside Stamkos.

"He's come back on a little bit of a mission," coach Jon Cooper said. "And it's good to see."

It's reminiscent of Nikita Kucherov's preseason last year, when the Russian wing scored six goals in six exhibitions to force his way onto the Lightning roster. Kucherov said that jump-started his 29-goal season on the dynamic Triplets line.

"When you have confidence, with how much skill he has, it's fun to watch," Kucherov said. "As soon as you get confidence, the game feels easier."

Drouin said he's trusting his instincts more, and "in synch." He had four goals and 28 assists in 70 games last season, having made his debut in mid October after missing training camp with a fractured thumb. While Drouin tried to adjust to the Lightning system, and improve his two-way game, his elite playmaking skills were paralyzed a bit.

"I was thinking a lot," Drouin said. "If you're in the spot, in your head you're like, 'Am I in the right spot?' When you start thinking, a pass blows by you. This year, I know what I'm doing."

Drouin felt like he was coming into his own late in the regular season, when he returned to the top line with Stamkos. While he was mostly a spectator in the playoffs, Drouin played in the final three games of the Stanley Cup final. He said he thought about those games a lot over the summer, even watching a few clips, noticing he was playing his game.

"I wanted to carry it into this preseason," Drouin said.

Drouin often has a pass-first mentality, which makes him a perfect partner for the all-world finisher in Stamkos. But Drouin spoke with Lightning coaches, who encouraged him to shoot and be more selfish. After all, Drouin scored a combined 70 goals his final two seasons in Halifax.

That scoring touch has returned this preseason, with Stamkos noting Drouin is making some moves that "maybe he wouldn't have tried last year."

"He's taking command more so far," Cooper said. "He's got wonderful skills. He's got three goals in the preseason and all of them seem to be highlight-reels. It's a lot of fun to watch."

There were goals like Tuesday in Johnstown, or Saturday in Dallas, when Drouin split two Stars defenders before ripping a shot into a tiny opening in the net. "He's able to make some plays when sometimes it doesn't look like there is one," Stamkos said. "That's the kind of skill level he has."

Said Smith: "Playmaking and scoring ability that cannot be taught."

Whether Drouin can follow Kucherov's path remains to be seen, but he's feeling — and looking — more like he did playing for Smith in Halifax.

"It's obviously not there right now," Drouin said." But confidence-wise, it's getting closer to that. It's definitely great."

MEDICAL MATTERS: Defenseman Victor Hedman, who left Tuesday's game in the second period with a minor injury, returned to practice Wednesday. Forward Cedric Paquette (left leg) didn't skate and is still day to day.

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

Lightning's Jonathan Drouin aims for breakout season 09/30/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 30, 2015 10:25pm]
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