Few would have expected Jonathan Drouin to return to the Lightning this season.
The 20-year-old winger left Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, in mid-January following a trade request that had gone unfulfilled. At the time, it appeared he was willing to sit on the sideline until he was moved to a new organization. Surprisingly, however, with no deal complete at the trade deadline, Drouin reached out to the Lightning, the team lifted its team-imposed suspension and he could be back in action as soon as Friday.
"He called and said he would like to come back, he wants to play hockey," Lightning GM Steve Yzerman told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. "He misses playing. He's been out. He's a hockey player and he wants to play."
And even though some believed there was no chance Drouin would suit up for Tampa Bay again, Yzerman isn’t ruling out the possibility of the 2013 third-overall pick making his way into the Lightning at some point.
"If he gets back and he plays well and he's going to help us win and he's in the right frame of mind and he deserves it, he'll get recalled,” Yzerman told Rosen.
Yzerman said “anything can happen,” and the Tampa Bay GM added that what’s most important is that he makes moves that will help the Lightning now and in the post-season. In part, that’s what prevented Drouin from being traded: Yzerman wanted to help his organization now and in the future. Moving Drouin solely because he had made a request and not because Yzerman was receiving a fair return wouldn’t have been in the club’s best interest.
Drouin’s conditioning, Yzerman told Rosen, shouldn’t be a concern upon returning the lineup, in part because he has been training outside Montreal in the time since he walked away from the Crunch. Timing, on the other hand, might be something that takes some time to return to Drouin’s game, Yzerman said. Getting that back will be Drouin’s first step to making an NHL return, and, once he has that, he’s going to need to prove he deserves a recall.
Fact is that Drouin’s numbers in the AHL during his seven-game stint prior to his walkout didn’t force the Lightning to bring him back up to the big club. Over his 10 days and seven games with the Crunch, Syracuse scored two goals and three points, but was held pointless in five games. It’s likely the best way for Drouin to make his way back to the Lightning by the end of the campaign would be by lighting up the AHL.
One point of interest will be Drouin’s minutes in the NHL if he makes it back to Tampa Bay this season. He averaged roughly 14 minutes of ice time per game with the Lightning this season, contributing two goals and eight points in 19 games.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper used Drouin sparingly during the 2014-15 post-season and it’s possible that could repeat itself this year. Drouin suited up in only six of Tampa Bay’s playoff games, and only played more than 11 minutes in one game. Three of Drouin’s games came in the Stanley Cup final last season, but he played roughly eight minutes in two of his three appearances. He was scratched for the other three games.
Regardless of whether Drouin’s season ends with NHL action, though, all eyes will be on the sophomore winger when he suits up for the Crunch again this season. If he can start racking up points, it might be hard for the Lightning to deny him the chance to make a difference come playoff time.