Thursday, April 21, 2016

Jonathan Drouin: In Lightning's plans and loving it

By Larry Wigge

Jonathan Drouin can find you in a phone booth.

Think about it, tight quarters ... no place to move ... for anyone.

Stay tuned. We're at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena. Hostile at best.

On May 21, Nikita Kucherov, who needs very little time or space to get off his dangerous shot, had a pair of goals, courtesy of nice setups by Tyler Johnson and Drouin -- one 5:41 in the first period and the other at 10:31 of the second. Kucherov also made a fantastic cross-ice pass to Drouin, who eventually found Ondrej Palat for the game-winning goals breaking a 2-2 tie with 2:59 remaining.

"The one thing that gets missed in all of this is we never, ever gave up on Jonathan," coach Jon Cooper said. "He took a stand and made a decision, we can debate or not whether he was right or wrong, but it turned out he came back and made a choice to succeed, and to battle through. There was no gratuitous callup. He earned his way back. He's helping us win hockey games, which we knew all along he could."

The story was like a soap opera on January 2, when Droin was sent to Syracuse of the American Hockey League ... then he balked at the demotion and demanded a trade by the Lightning ... and he went home to stew. Being suspended by Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman.

Finally, he relented and accepted the demotion, scoring 11 goals and two assists in 17 games at Syracuse. 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.

He earned his recall.

"You're sitting at home, you don't really know what's going to happen," Drouin explained. "That's why at one point I decided to go back to playing hockey, making sure I'm at least playing -- if it's Syracuse, it's Syracuse. To get the call-up is huge -- definitely happy to be back."

It did matter that the Lightning had lost star winger Steven Stamkos during Drouin suspension.

For the season, Drouin played in 21 games and had four goals and six assists. But in the first four games of the playoffs, he already has four assists. He sparked a stagnant Lightning power play with three assists.

"Hopefully," center Brian Boyle said, "we keep writing it for a couple months."

Drouin, who was born in Ste-Agathe, Quebec, displays vision and skill set are next to none. He can stickhandle in a phone booth, too. That is why the Lightning spent the third period in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

"I'm not waiting for something to happen," Drouin said. "It's more make it happen."

Drouin did just that on the winner, directing traffic on the power play, raising his stick to call for a seam pass from Kucherov. Drouin faked a shot, waited, then zipped a pass on the tape of Palat's stick in the crease.

"You watch some of the things he does, it's just remarkable," Johnson said. "When he gets his motor running and speed going, it's pretty magical to watch. I'm really glad he's on our team right now."

When Lightning forward Alex Killorn was 15, he and his buddies on the Lac St. Louis Lions in Montreal would notice a 9-year-old skating rings around his peers.

A year or two later, the kid began skating with the older players and, funny thing, he skated rings around them, too.

"We'd hit him, push him around to just toughen him up a little," Killorn said. "Nobody was trying to hurt him. He was so skilled you couldn't be mad. We just looked at him, like, 'Who is this kid?' "

It was Drouin, who now stands at 5-11, 191 pounds. Still nobody's going to push him around.

"He's a very special player, a player with special vision and great hockey sense," said Colorado center Nate MacKinnon, a linemate of Drouin's at Halifax the past two seasons. MacKinnon was picked No. 1 overall in the draft, Drouin was No. 3.

Drouin had playoff runs of 12 and 23 assists in 12 games at Halifax in 2012-13 and 13 goals and 43 assists in 16 games the next year.

"He's going to have a long, great career in the NHL," continued MacKinnon. "He's a very special guy and a very special player. He's going to do wonders with Tampa Bay ... I think his puckhandling stands out for me.

"That he creates the other things with his hockey sense. His decision-making as well is one of the best on the job, so he's a very special player."

Drouin says, "Biggest thing is my vision. I see things that maybe others don't see on the ice."

Watching Drouin's speed, it's surprising he was late to put on skates. He preferred to wear boots while on the neighborhood rink until age 7, developing his quick, soft hands by stickhandling with a golf ball in the basement.

"I didn't like skating," Drouin said. "At one point, my dad said, 'You've got to start skating if you want to play hockey.' "

But once Drouin laced them up, he rarely took them off. With the ice just a five-minute walk from his  home -- about 60 miles north of Montreal -- Drouin would be out there before school, after school and late into the evening.

Drouin's father Serge looked after the rink and once Jonathan started skating, he didn't stop.
His mother, Brigitte Dufour, said she would often bring dinner or snacks out to him.

"He'd eat," she said. "And then keep skating."

Drouin's favorite player was Avalanche captain Joe Sakic, dreaming of one day making it to the NHL.

"To be here now is a little surreal," he said.

Even so, Cooper said of Drouin, "I'm fairly sure he is going to jump the curve a little sooner than others. His hockey IQ is off the charts. So when you have that in your repertoire, usually you can advance a little bit quicker than some others."

Says Yzerman, "His hockey sense, his skill, his competitiveness, we like all his tools."

Not that anyone is guaranteeing Drouin a Lightning roster spot.

"Steve Yzerman has been very clear he's not going to rush anybody," Murray said. "But he's not going to hold anyone back, either."

Fans called him a "quitter," "crybaby" and "spoiled brat" after Drouin walked away from Syracuse on January 20. Drouin knows some aren't happy with him, and he respects that.

"I did this stuff," he says. "I've got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. I've got stuff to prove. You want to show that you deserve to be in the NHL, you deserve your shot."

Said Drouin, "You’re not just drafting a player, you’re drafting a person."

Think about that.

"This is a fast pace," Cooper said. "You just can't jump in. He has to learn to play the pace of the game. It takes time to learn to play the pace, I don't care who you are.

"When he gets his motor running and speed going, it's pretty magical to watch. I'm really glad he's on our team right now."

Jonathan Drouin would like to play on the same line as Stamkos, too.

"One day I hope I get to play alongside Stamkos," he said. "He is a great player and I have loved watching him play."

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