In the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Lightning fans saw Jonathan Drouin emerge as the playmaking game-changer they expected when the dynamic winger was selected third overall at the 2013 NHL Draft.
Against Detroit in a First Round series, Drouin resurrected a moribund Lightning power play, dissecting the Red Wings' penalty kill with his keen passing skills to assist on all three Bolts' power-play goals in a 3-2, series-defining victory.
During Game 3 of the Second Round versus the New York Islanders, Drouin displayed his toughness, returning from a brutal hit dished out by the Isles' Thomas Hickey that forced him to leave the game for a bit and then providing the primary assist late in the game for Nikita Kucherov's game-tying goal in a contest the Bolts would eventually win 5-4 in overtime.
Video: NYI@TBL, Gm2: Drouin slips one five-hole by Greiss
And against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final, Drouin showcased his scoring prowess, tallying goals in four of the seven games of the series, including the Bolts' only goal in a winner-take-all Game 7 in Pittsburgh.
Drouin's playoff performance was in stark contrast to the regular season, where he played just 21 of Tampa Bay's 82 games, tallied only 10 points (4 goals, 6 assists) and was sent down to the Lightning's AHL affiliate in Syracuse at midseason to get more playing time and work on his game.
So, with the Lightning returning basically the same team that has advanced to the Stanley Cup Final and Eastern Conference Final in successive years but has been missing that little something extra to get them over the hump, could a 2016 playoff version of Drouin over a full season be that something extra to push the Bolts to the top and allow them to hoist the franchise's second-ever Stanley Cup at season's end?
"I don't know if one player can change that stuff," Drouin responded when asked that very question. "But, we're an experienced team. It's kind of the same group as last year. We do have to get over that hump. Conference Finals is not what we wanted last year. It's definitely a good step but not what we want to accomplish."
During the preseason, the 21-year-old Drouin has shown he's ready to be a difference maker for a full season. In Saturday's 4-3 loss in Nashville, Drouin was, arguably, the best player on the ice. His speed gave the Predators fits. He shot the puck more - something Drouin said before the game would be his focus - and recorded four shots, second most on the Bolts. And his incredible stick handling skills were on full display throughout.
One sequence in particular late in the first period summed up Drouin's full arsenal. Taking hold of the puck deep in his own end, Drouin sped down the right wing to blow past a Nashville backchecker. As he entered the offensive zone, Drouin was met by a trio of Predators. He skillfully weaved his way around and through them to get free in the slot, where he unleashed a shot at Marek Mazanec. The Preds' goalie was able to block Drouin's shot away, but the sequence was a reminder how, in just a couple of seconds, Drouin can change a game.
"It's tough to say from one game, but, obviously, he's still very fast and good with the puck," said Valtteri Filppula, who played on a line with Drouin against the Predators. "He can make really good plays. So far, it looks similar to where he ended (last season), and that's a really good level. I'm happy to see that."
Filppula added Drouin brings a skill "you don't see too often."
"It's fun to watch," he said, smiling.
Video: TBL@PIT, Gm2: Drouin ties the game with perfect shot
Last season, up until the final week of the regular season, Drouin was the one mostly doing the watching. He averaged 14:27 time on ice, slightly up from his rookie season (13:14) but not enough for a player of his caliber. Drouin averaged only two minutes of power-play time each game, ranking 11th on the Bolts
Drouin understands in order to stay on the ice more in 2016-17 and to have more of an impact on special teams, he has to work hard at both ends of the ice and prove he's deserving of an increased role.
"It's going to be up to my play," Drouin said. "Sometimes you're not playing well, you're not going to get that chance. I've learned that in the last couple of years. It's up to me to keep my play uptempo and get on the power play."
Drouin said he's in a good place with his game as the 2016-17 regular season is just over a week from starting. He represented Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey in September, scoring a goal against Filppula's Team Finland in both teams' opener. He entered Lightning training camp ready to go from day one following his experience at the WCH. And in his one preseason game so far, he's looked like the player that ended the 2015-16 season on such a high.
That bodes well for the Lightning as they enter the upcoming season as one of the favorites in the NHL to win the Stanley Cup.
"I definitely come into Tampa this year feeling good and I feel confident," Drouin said.