VANCOUVER - Jonathan Drouin will have to wait a while before he can again wear the jersey that he covets most.
But while he was disappointed not to make the Tampa Bay Lighting out of training camp this season, the third overall choice in this year's NHL draft still hopes to shine in two other teams' uniforms.
Drouin has a chance to help Canada win a world junior title, and he will be counted on to be a key contributor in the Halifax Mooseheads' quest to repeat as QMJHL and Memorial Cup champions.
The 18-year-old Ste. Agathe, Que., native is getting ready to join Team Canada in preparation for the world junior championships over the Christmas holidays in Malmo, Sweden.
"Putting that (Canadian) jersey on is always exciting," said Drouin on Tuesday in a telephone interview.
Earlier this week, Drouin was among 25 invitees to Canada's evaluation camp from Dec. 12-15 in Toronto.
"We have a good team again this year, and we have a lot to prove after we didn't win that gold medal," he said.
He is looking forward to taking part in his second world junior tournament after excelling as an upstart 17-year-old with the Canadian squad that finished fourth in the 2013 event in Ufa, Russia.
After captaining a QMJHL all-star team to a pair of wins over Russia in this year's Subway Super Series, he has a chance to play the same leadership role as Canada seeks its 15th medal in the past 16 world junior tournaments.
When asked if he is looking forward to the chance to serve as captain during the international event, Drouin offers a stock answer, noting the team will have many leaders. Then he merely acknowledges that it would be "great" to wear a second "C" when Canada faces the world’s top hockey nations.
But Drouin, the CHL's 2012-13 player of the year who is in his third and likely final season of a junior career spent entirely with Halifax, makes less of an effort to downplay the anguish that he felt after the Lightning returned him to the Mooseheads.
"Obviously, it's disappointing getting cut from the big league," he said. "It took me some time to get adjusted back to the (QMJHL) level."
Although Tampa general manager Steve Yzerman could have kept Drouin around for nine games this season before his NHL entry-level contract would have kicked in, he returned him to Halifax for more seasoning. Yzerman wants Drouin to benefit from more ice time than he would get with the Lightning.
Although Lightning star Steven Stamkos' broken leg created an opening at centre with the NHL club, Drouin refuses to play the what-if game.
"I don't think I want to wait for injuries to play in the NHL," he said. "I don't want a guy to get hurt so they can call me. I think I want to be there when the whole team is (healthy.) Obviously, it was sad to see Stammer go down like that. I’ll be back there next year – hopefully as a regular."
While with Tampa in the NHL exhibition campaign, Drouin, formerly a winger, shifted to centre. He has assumed the No. 1 centre role with the Mooseheads after former teammate Nathan MacKinnon was drafted first overall in the NHL lottery and stayed with the Colorado Avalanche.
Despite having more defensive responsibilities, Drouin has not slowed down offensively. In November, he was named the QMJHL's player of the week on two consecutive occasions. Drouin sits second in the QMJHL with 15 goals and 32 assists after a recent 14-game streak in which he racked up 39 points (13 goals, 26 assists).
"It's special to go on a streak like that," he said. "When your team is winning, the (shots) go in easier."
He led the Mooseheads to 10 straight wins in November before they were blanked 2-0 by Moncton on Sunday. Heading into Friday’s home game against Victoriaville, the Mooseheads (21-10-0) sit first in the Maritimes Conference, tied for second overall in the QMJHL, and seventh in the CHL’s weekly rankings.
"When I got adjusted (to life in the QMJHL) again, I think my play went up a level, and I got back to the way I was playing last year," he said.
Halifax coach Dominique Ducharme called Drouin's release from the Lightning "a big deflection."
"He needed to get over that," said Ducharme by telephone on Tuesday. "He needed to find himself and get back on track. It took, probably, I would say, three weeks, and then he went from there. He took off and now he’s back playing with passion."
Ducharme said Drouin is getting more comfortable at centre and improving on face-offs. As a result of MacKinnon’s departure, Drouin has also become more of a leader and takes charge of each situation.
Yet, in keeping with his youth, Drouin is not ultra-intense all the time.
"When you come here in the room, he's having fun with the guys," said Ducharme. "He's a joker, but when it’s time to work out, when it's time to go on the ice and get better, when it's the night before a game, he wants to win. He wants to be making the difference."
Ducharme suggested it's a challenge for the club's coaches to find ways for "a kid with that much potential" to improve. But Drouin helps himself and the rest of the team excel through a willingness to work on all facets of his game.
"He's aware of his skills and his vision," Ducharme said. "He's a guy that competes every night. The more important the situation, the better he is – and that’s, I think, something that makes him special."
In other words, he is glad that Drouin is still wearing a Mooseheads jersey.
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