Why Jonathan Drouin’s Lightning teammates welcomed him back

Injured Steven Stamkos jokes about possibly playing tonight, but says really he's just as frustrated having to answer the same question, as the reporters are asking it.

TAMPA, Fla. – Steven Stamkos believes Jonathan Drouin might end up looking back on it as the “best worst decision he ever made.”

Going public with a trade a request, and then bolting from the Tampa Bay Lightning’s AHL affiliate for five weeks, didn’t get him a new NHL home this season. But it did set the stage for an improbable comeback during the Stanley Cup Playoffs where the 21-year-old has looked downright dominant.

One of the more interesting aspects of his turbulent year is the way he’s been embraced by teammates.

The Lightning are truly a band of brothers – one of the closest groups you’ll find in the NHL – and there were initially some hard feelings when Drouin left them high and dry. That they’ve long since dissipated speaks to how well the former third overall pick has handled himself since returning to the Syracuse Crunch in early March.

“I think in the back of everyone’s mind, I’m sure you’re not human if you’re not a little pissed off at him for (what happened),” Stamkos said in an interview over the weekend. “And he understands that. I think that’s the first step that made the transition easy was he understood he might have not been acting in the best interest of the team and himself. But he manned up.

“That took a lot to say ‘you know what, maybe I made a mistake. I want to get a chance to come back and play in the minors.’ Probably not ever thinking he would get a call back, but just giving himself a chance.”

It wasn’t until after Stamkos underwent surgery for a blood clot near his right collarbone on April 4 that Drouin was recalled to the Lightning. Had the captain not suffered that unexpected setback, who knows what kind of role Drouin would have right now?

Perhaps he would be watching from the press box, as he did for much of last year’s playoffs.

Instead, he’s just shy of being a point-per-game top-six forward who has goals in both games against Pittsburgh during the Eastern Conference final. Drouin is a dynamic must-watch presence right now and looks capable of making a special play every time he’s near the puck.

“You always knew he had tremendous talents and he’s putting everything together,” defenceman Victor Hedman told Sportsnet on Tuesday. “He’s a treat to watch. We’re just happy to have him because we need him. He’s one of those difference-makers that you need on a team if you want to go deep, especially with Stammer missing.”

At the heart of Drouin’s trade request was a desire to get more of an opportunity to play. He only dressed for six games during last year’s run to the Stanley Cup final and saw his ice time fluctuate early in the season.

Whatever tension there might have been between him and coach Jon Cooper is no longer quite as pronounced, not with Drouin receiving more than 19 minutes of playing time during a couple games this spring. It’s allowed the second-year pro to start delivering on the promise that’s followed him since he was taken behind Nathan MacKinnon and Aleksander Barkov at the 2013 draft.

“He’s a really talented player,” said Cooper. “There’s a reason he was drafted where he was and came with all the press clippings. There’s that growing stage, that step, of going from junior to pro. Actually, it hasn’t even taken him that long to learn the process.

“The only thing about Jo is he just had a camera on him the whole time, whereas most players don’t. So I think every step he took was scrutinized.”

The public nature of his dispute with the organization this season certainly didn’t do anything to change that fact. While we shouldn’t be completely surprised to see him producing on this stage – he averaged 2.04 points-per game during his QMJHL playoff career – the fact he’s done it after the trade demand, and the time spent at home in Montreal, is particularly impressive.

It’s impossible to measure exactly what affect that experience had on him, but teammates believe he’s shown a heightened level of focus since returning to the NHL.

“He’s so fast, shifty, scoring big goals and making big plays,” said Hedman. “He was a top-three pick for a reason and we’re happy to have him on our side. He’s been nothing but a pro since he got back.”

Indeed, everything seems to essentially be forgotten inside the Lightning’s dressing room now. Drouin is certainly in a much happier place than he was a couple months ago and would much rather look ahead than back.

The fact that he was willing to own his decisions after leaving Syracuse ultimately allowed his teammates to welcome him back to Tampa with open arms.

“I had talked to him before – he’d reached out to certain guys on the team – we gave him our opinions and told him ‘just go back, work hard, you never know,”’ said Stamkos. “The beauty of this sport is you never know. Injuries happen, he gets called up and he goes through (everything) and trains his ass off for the two months … and he comes back a machine.

“It’s paying off for us now.”

Just imagine where the Lightning might be without him.

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