Watching Jonathan Drouin dazzle during this postseason, it's hard to believe he is the same player who walked away from the Lightning organization four months ago, potentially for good.
Yet here is the touted 21-year-old wing, dangling the puck as if it's attached to his stick blade, dizzying the Islanders in their second-round series with his playmaking ability.
"I said to somebody watching the last game, 'It looks like he's playing against the Moncton Wildcats,' " quipped Bobby Smith, a former general manager and owner of Drouin's junior team, the Halifax Mooseheads. "Not surprising me."
Drouin, who scored his first career playoff goal in Saturday's 4-1 victory in Game 2, has helped carry the Lightning in the playoffs, goalie and team MVP Ben Bishop said.
"Ever since he's been back up here, he's been unbelievable," Bishop said. "You've got to respect that. He came up here with a great attitude, just going to work. He's not talking, just … doing his thing.
"We all knew he had the skill; it's just a matter of him going out and doing it. It's nice to see a player kind of grow up and mature in front of your eyes in one season."
How did it happen? There was honest self-evaluation by Drouin, realizing he needed to be more engaged and aggressive on the ice. There was Drouin's decision to return to AHL Syracuse in March after a six-week holdout over his trade request, regaining his confidence with the Crunch and earning his way back to the NHL, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. There's his talent; Drouin "didn't become a great player last week," Smith said. And there's the opportunity; Drouin is getting the top-six role and minutes that he always sought, and that some thought he should have had sooner after the Lightning picked him third overall in the 2013 draft.
"Jo is an artist. You have to let him paint, let him do his magic," said Paul Gagne, Drouin's strength coach since he was 15. "And he's only (21) years old. Check that guy in two, three years, you'll say 'Oh my God.' He's a diamond, way from polished."
But he's already shining on the big stage.
Gagne worked with Drouin five days a week after the wing left Syracuse on Jan. 20 while he awaited a trade he had requested in November.
Crunch coach Rob Zettler had tried to talk Drouin out of the move. "We just want you to play," Zettler told him. "We think it's the best thing for you."
Instead, Drouin — who had been sent to Syracuse in early January to get playing time after an injury-plagued first half of the season with the Lightning — spent that six-week holdout at home outside Montreal getting in the best shape. Gagne compared it to how a player trains in August and September. "That's why he's so dominant," Gagne said.
Drouin did two-a-day workout sessions, one in the gym with Gagne and the other skill drills and skating. "I told him it's going to transform him," said Gagne, who works with clients of Drouin's agent's company, Octagon. "I had to kick him out of the gym. Pound for pound, him and (Penguins goalie Marc-Andre) Fleury are the most powerful. We call (Drouin) the Jack Russell Terrier."
But after watching film of his games with the Lightning, Drouin noticed he wasn't so feisty. He spent too much time on the perimeter, not enough in the dirty areas of play. He was passive and passing too much. If he got another shot, Drouin thought, it would be different. And it's showing now, a much more engaged, physical Drouin, who asked Red Wings rookie center Dylan Larkin to fight in the first round.
"I'm not waiting for something to happen. I'm chasing it," Drouin said. "I'm creating something, just being more aggressive."
After the Feb. 29 trade deadline passed with Drouin not going anywhere, he reached out to Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman and asked if he could come back.
Drouin, a hockey junkie, missed the game. Badly. He missed his teammates, several of whom from the Lightning had reached out to him during his holdout.
Drouin returned to Syracuse not knowing if he would get another shot in the NHL this season, or with the Lightning at all. He didn't give a mea culpa speech to his Crunch teammates, though he spoke with a few individually. They welcomed him back with open arms, which was significant.
"If we would have been hostile, it wouldn't have been a good thing for any of us," defenseman Slater Koekkoek said.
Drouin also let his actions talk.
"When he left, guys wanted him to stay," Crunch captain Mike Angelidis said. "When he came back, all we said was he just has to buy in and work hard and prove himself. It wasn't like he came through and went through the motions. He competed."
Boy, did he. Drouin scored nine goals in 10 games with the Crunch and racked up 39 shots. But he also brought an edge to his game, winning battles in corners, hitting guys. Koekkoek, a 2012 first-round pick, said the AHL "changes you," partly out of the desire to survive.
"That's something you learn in the AHL," Angelidis said. "You call it 'The Jungle.' It's a very physical league, guys fighting and clawing to get up (to the NHL)."
Zettler said Drouin always has been coachable but he decided on his own that he needed to improve.
"It's a combination of realizing and being shown what he needed to do to get back up here," Zettler said. "Maybe being away from the game was a wakeup — 'I really miss this.'
With the Lightning banged up and without captain Steven Stamkos because of a blood clot, Drouin was called up with two games left in the regular season.
Teammates greeted him with stick taps at his first morning skate in New Jersey. Drouin put off talk about his trade request until the summer, though said his relationship with the Lightning could be salvaged.
He just wanted to focus on playing and having fun.
"The smile is back now," Gagne said. "It was just a question of time."
Maybe time will heal whatever rift led Drouin to ask for a trade. But Drouin, with a team-high-matching six assists this postseason, is showing why he can be a franchise cornerstone, not a trade chip Yzerman can deal this summer.
"That ain't happening," Bobby Smith, Drouin's junior GM, said of a trade.
Drouin can be an X factor in this Eastern Conference semifinal that's tied 1-1 heading into Tuesday's Game 3 in Brooklyn. The Islanders have to figure out a way to stop Drouin, whom Lightning center Valtteri Filppula said can be a one-man cycle.
"He is slippery," Cooper said. "You ever go fishing and grab the fish with bare hands? That's what he's like out there. He's hard to defend. When he's cycling the puck and moving down there, he's so shifty, crafty and skilled, you don't know what he's going to do.
"He just makes those 6-foot passes under pressure on guys' tape, where the whole game has slowed down for him but is buzzing for everybody else. That's what makes him extremely hard to defend. He seems to make those plays under pressure."
Said Smith: "You turn on the TV and you keep it on largely cause of what Drouin can do."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.