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Lightning forward Drouin making most of second chance

After rough season, plays well in Game 1 against Red Wings

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TAMPA -- When the Tampa Bay Lightning practiced Thursday, left wing Jonathan Drouin approached associate coach Rick Bowness. He wanted to see a video clip of a play from the night before, when the Lightning defeated the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in Game 1 of their best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series.

Bowness was glad Drouin asked. He had already marked the clip to show him later.

So they went over to a whiteboard stuck to the glass and broke down the play. There was a gray area in defending a rush, and Bowness told Drouin he had stayed too wide on the backcheck. If the same situation arises in Game 2 on Friday (7 p.m.; CNBC, CBC, TVA Sports, FS-F, FS-D), he should pressure the puck.

"It cleared up my mind," Drouin said. "I know what to do next time."

After all the drama -- Drouin clashing with coach Jon Cooper, demanding a trade, sitting out in the minors, getting suspended, not getting traded, asking to play in the minors, rejoining the Lightning for the final two regular-season games -- each side finally is getting what they want. At least for now.

Drouin is getting opportunity. With captain Steve Stamkos out because of a blood clot, Cooper has little choice but to use Drouin in a top-six role and on the power play. He gave him 18:09 of ice time in Game 1, second-most among Tampa Bay forwards, including 1:32 of power-play time.

The Lightning are getting a more mature, more engaged player. Drouin's stat line was unimpressive in Game 1 -- no points, four penalty minutes, a minus-1 rating-- but he was noticeable all night. He made plays. He went to the net. He got physical.

It is in no one's interest for Drouin to be perceived as a petulant, uncooperative kid. It helps both sides if Drouin makes the most of this. At best, Drouin and Cooper repair their relationship, and Drouin becomes the player the Lightning hoped he would be when they selected him third in the 2013 NHL Draft. At worst, he improves as a player for himself and increases his trade value for the team.

"I have a lot of stuff to prove to myself but to the staff and the team here," Drouin said. "Some things I did maybe [were] not [in] the right, but it's up to me to prove that and be sure I have their back and playing the right way."

Can this be salvaged?

"Yeah, definitely," Drouin said. "It's hard to say right now. I'm putting that stuff aside. I don't even want to talk about it. Right now I'm just focusing on my play, helping this team, and I'm sure everything's going to figure itself out at one point."

Let's keep something in perspective: Drouin is 21. Players mature at different rates mentally and physically. Lots of offensive stars come out of junior and run into NHL coaches who try to rein them in, right or wrong.

Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman served his management apprenticeship with the Red Wings, who are famous for ripening their prospects in the minors or in Europe. They don't want to bring players to the NHL until they are ready to thrive, not just survive. (In fairness, they haven't drafted anyone in the top 10 with NHL-ready skills in a generation. Rookie Dylan Larkin, 19, the No. 15 selection in the 2014 NHL Draft, is the closest they have had.)

Yzerman kept Drouin in junior in 2013-14. He would have liked to have started Drouin in the American Hockey League last season, because he felt he was too good for junior but not ready for the NHL, but couldn't because Drouin was too young.

So Drouin joined the Lightning. He played 70 games, but after putting up big numbers in junior, he had four goals and 32 points. He was a healthy scratch for most of the Lightning's run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Drouin felt he wasn't getting enough ice time; Cooper felt he wasn't earning it. Cooper saw too many mistakes; Drouin was afraid to make mistakes. No matter whose side you lean toward, it was a vicious cycle.

Though Drouin started this season skating with Stamkos, he got banged up and fell out of favor with Cooper again. Then came the trade demand.

Cooper could use right wing Nikita Kucherov as an example. Kucherov went to the minors. Kucherov once was scratched in the playoffs for a couple of games. He accepted Cooper's challenge to play a complete game and earned his trust, and has blossomed into an impact player at 22.

Video: DET@TBL, Gm1: Kucherov's goals spark Lightning

Except Kucherov wasn't selected No. 3. He was selected No. 58 in the 2011 NHL Draft.

"The difference is with Jo, Jo came with his face plastered all over every hockey magazine in the world, where Kuch came in unnoticed," Cooper said about Drouin. "That's the difference where I feel bad for Jo. He had expectations and pressure plastered all over him, where Kuch really didn't. When he had his struggles, nobody seemed to care, unfortunately except for us.

"I don't even know if Jo struggled as much as Kuch did, but everything was so magnified. It was unfortunate for Drouin because he had the spotlight on him so much."

The good thing is, Drouin used his time away constructively. He worked out and added muscle. He watched video and saw he spent too much time on the perimeter.

When he wasn't traded, he asked Yzerman if he could play again. When he reported to the AHL, he excelled. And when he came back to Tampa Bay, he scored in each of the final two regular-season games.

It has been a small sample size. But Drouin is in a good situation -- fresh from the time off, skating with strong two-way players in linemates Valtteri Filppula and Ondrej Palat, coming to the rink knowing he's going to play, getting into the flow with more ice time -- and the Lightning see a more confident, more engaged player.

"Where before he probably waited for somebody to go get him the puck, now he's going in there to get it himself," Cooper said. "That's a very good sign."

Said Bowness: "Before, 'It's going to happen.' Now he's out there, 'I've got something to prove, and I'm going to make it happen.' There's a difference in that attitude."

It needs to continue, for him and for the Lightning.

"He just needs to keep playing," Bowness said. "Experience, right? You saw him [Wednesday] night. This kid's heart is in the right place. Watch how hard he works. He's hitting guys last night, and he's anxious. He's anxious to get out. He's not cautious. He's not sitting back. He's playing hard. He's a young kid, and he's just going to keep getting better."

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