Tampa Bay Lightning forward prospect Jonathan Drouin was one of the most decorated players in junior hockey when he was selected third in the 2013 NHL Draft.
Instead of debuting in the League, he was sent back to junior and established himself as one of the world's top prospects. After a 2013-14 season when disappointing losses overshadowed great individual achievements, the 19-year-old is on the verge of starting his NHL career.
"I'm more mature as a person. I think I grew a little bit being one of the older guys on the [junior] team, seeing things you didn't see when you were 16 or 17," Drouin said from Lightning prospect camp. "A lot of things were tough for me. It helped me grow as a person. Not winning was the toughest thing."
With the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2012-13, Drouin won the Memorial Cup alongside good friend Nathan MacKinnon, and won the Michel Briere Memorial Trophy as the QMJHL most valuable player.
The following season didn't go as smoothly.
Drouin was sent back to Halifax on Sept. 29, four days before the Lightning started their NHL schedule. Playing one more season of junior, he dominated on the ice and learned a great deal off it.
"I think I'm over [being sent back]. I don't want to think about it too much. In the end, it was their decision to send me back to juniors for another year," Drouin said. "Obviously you want to prove them wrong, but as the year went on I think I was playing more for the Moosheads than anything else. You forget about being cut and you move on a little bit. It was a big deal, but I'm only 19 years old. I have many years in front of me to try to make the club."
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said that long-term outlook was to benefit Drouin and the team.
"It was by no means to send him a message," Cooper told The Tampa Tribune this week. "Jonathan Drouin is not someone we???re investing in for one year. We're investing in him for a decade or more. Why would we want to rush the finished product?"
Being cut was a new experience for Drouin, who went on to finish third in QMJHL scoring with 108 points even though he missed 22 games with injuries. He also was among the top scorers at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden.
But the Quebec native dealt with an unfamiliar experience: losing.
Drouin and his Canada teammates finished fourth at the WJC and the Mooseheads lost in the semifinals of the QMJHL playoffs to eventual champion Val-d'Or. To his credit, Drouin refused to go out without a fight. Down 2-1 to Val-d'Or in the best-of-7 series, Drouin gave one of the finest performances of his junior career in Game 4, scoring two goals with three assists and winning 20 of 35 faceoffs (57 percent) in a 5-4 victory.
Knocked out in the third round, Drouin led the QMJHL in playoff scoring with 41 points in 16 games.
"A lot of people look at stats, but we didn't win. My 17-year-old season we won," he said. "It was a little different, but we had a good playoff run as a team and I had a good playoff run too. There are a lot of things to work on and that's why this summer I'm here."
The payoff has been visible.
"You can just see [his] quickness out there; [the] puck skills and the smarts have always been there," director of player development Stacy Roest told the Lightning website. "Now I think the conditioning's better and to me he looked a lot faster; he looks really good."
Drouin didn't just lose some big games last season, he also was without one of his best friends, MacKinnon. Apart after two successful seasons together in Halifax, Drouin and MacKinnon, who was selected first by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2013 draft, stayed in contact.
"We're buddies, so we text quite often. We don't really talk much about hockey. We get hockey 24/7 already, so we're happy to change the subject," Drouin said. "It was more stuff off the ice, like what Colorado is like and what's going on in Halifax with the new players."
MacKinnon won the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year, adding another item to Drouin's list for the foreseeable future.
"It's one of my goals to win the Calder one day. But I also want to go far in the playoffs, which is an even better feeling," he said.
Drouin has a lengthy list of benchmarks he's looking to reach, some as soon as next season, but returning to the World Junior Championship isn't among them. Hockey Canada invited Drouin to its summer evaluation camp in August, but the Lightning prospect isn't ready to book his ticket for the 2015 tournament in Toronto and Montreal.
Drouin wouldn't say if he would attend the evaluation camp, but he wasn't shy about his intention to spend Christmastime doing something else.
"The last two years have been great with Team Canada," he said. "Honestly, I'd rather be in the NHL."