NEWARK, N.J. -- Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Jonathan Drouin is hoping a fresh start will lead to an inspiring finish when he plays in his first NHL game in four months against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on Thursday.
It has been a tumultuous few months for Drouin. He received stick taps and plenty of well wishes from Lightning teammates when he took the ice for the morning skate Thursday, and will play on a line with center Vladislav Namestnikov and left wing Alex Killorn.
Drouin's roller coaster season included being dropped to a fourth-line role in Tampa Bay (Dec. 30), reassigned to Syracuse of the American Hockey League (Jan. 2), a trade request (Jan. 3) that went unfulfilled, walking out on his Syracuse teammates and a suspension without pay (Jan. 20), and a phone call to general manager Steve Yzerman that resulted in his ultimate return (March 7) to the sport he loves.
"The off-ice stuff is for [the media]," Lightning center Tyler Johnson said. "For us in the locker room it's to win the Stanley Cup and I can guarantee that's going to be [Drouin's] goal as well. He's our family member and he's been with us, and we're glad to have him back.
"I don't think anyone has ever had hard feelings or intention otherwise. For us it's always been about winning hockey games."
It will be interesting to see how Lightning coach Jon Cooper utilizes Drouin in his return. He returned from injury and played 10:51 in a fourth-line role against the New York Rangers on Dec. 30 and three days later was reassigned to Syracuse.
Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman considered recalling Drouin last week after he announced forward Steven Stamkos was sidelined 1-3 months with a blood clot near his right collarbone until a lower-body injury kept Drouin out of a game on April 3.
Drouin could provide a spark to the Lightning offense, which has scored two goals or fewer in four of the past six games, and a power play ranked 26th in the League (16.1 percent). In addition to Stamkos, the Lightning are also missing defensemen Anton Stralman (broken leg) and Victor Hedman (upper body), and forward Ryan Callahan (upper body).
Cooper said Drouin will have to earn his time like everyone else on the roster.
"[Drouin] is no different than anyone else," Cooper said. "We'll talk where he fits and where his skill set fits, and he'll step into one of our power plays [against the Devils]. We'll use him the best we can. We have a couple games left and by the time game time rolls around, he'll know his job and he'll be one of 20 players helping us win a hockey game."
Drouin averaged approximately 14 minutes of ice time per game with the Lightning this season, scoring two goals and eight points in 19 games. He had six points (one goal, five assists) in his first five games but missed 19 games because of injuries and has two points in his past 14 NHL games.
He was used sparingly during the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, playing in six of the Lightning's 26 games and once topping 11 minutes once. With a solid showing in the Lightning's final two games this season, perhaps his role could increase in the 2016 playoffs.
"He just has to play his game," Johnson said. "He's a guy who is very dynamic, he can make plays. He scores and can assist. He plays a 200-foot game with that speed and quickness. We just need to make him feel comfortable and play his game."
Drouin was asked if he had any regrets with the way his season transpired.
"It's hard to say right now," he said. "I've said before, I'll look back in a couple of years and I might think differently but right now it's so early to say. That's the way it went and that's the way it goes, I guess."
Cooper said that whatever happened to Drouin off the ice is water under the bridge at this point. Tampa Bay, which needs two combined points over the final two games of the regular season to clinch second place in the Atlantic Division, needs Drouin to contribute the best he can.
"It's a game but sadly a business and everybody has separate contracts and everyone has different roles," Cooper said. "[Drouin] felt what he had to do but he's a part of the Tampa Bay Lightning and a big part of us. Do the players or coaches look at him differently in the room? Not at all. He had a belief in something and stood by his ground and there's nothing wrong with that. He's come back here and wants to win, and you talk to the coaches down in Syracuse and they say he's been phenomenal there and that's kind of what you want.
"You want the kids who want to play and he wants to be a hockey player."
Drouin said he was grateful for the show of support from the Syracuse and Tampa Bay players all season.
"It was huge to still hear from the guys," he said. "I have a lot of friends on this team; they are good guys. I'm still getting texts and phone calls. I've been trying to keep it low key with all this stuff but it creeps into your head a little bit, so definitely the support of my teammates was great.
"It was first class all the way. I didn't feel awkward or anything like that."