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Drouin eager to get back to playing hockey

Lightning prospect returns to Syracuse, thinks relationship can be fixed

by Lindsay Kramer / Special to

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- From a distance, forward Jonathan Drouin looked like any other young prospect as he wrapped up an optional skate with Syracuse of the American Hockey League in the Oncenter War Memorial Arena on Tuesday morning.

He and defenseman Charlie Dodero were the last two skaters on the ice, taking shots on goalie Kristers Gudlevskis. Dodero then left, leaving Drouin to work alone against the goalie. Drouin beat Gudlevskis in a game of 1-on-1, a feat Drouin boasted about later.

Finally, Gudlevskis departed and Drouin then ripped shots into an empty net. After a few such bids, he scooped up the loose pucks and skated off the ice.

"I don't think he's a rookie but maybe he's an AHL rookie. Maybe we'll treat him that way," Crunch captain Mike Angelidis said jokingly. "I think he was out there last, trying to get better. He's been off for a while. If you're the last guy, you pick up those pucks."

Some things in the sport don't change, even if you were one of the most scrutinized players in North America the past several weeks.

Which, of course, is exactly what Drouin was.

And now, even in a small corner of the AHL, Drouin resumes his career under perhaps an even greater spotlight.

Drouin, 20, returned to the Crunch ice for the first time Tuesday since leaving the team as it prepared to play a game in Toronto on Jan. 20. Drouin, the No. 3 pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2013 NHL Draft, had requested a trade at the start of the season. He had two goals and eight points in 19 games with the Lightning before he was sent down, and had two goals and three points in seven games with the Crunch before leaving the team.

After the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline came and went and Drouin remained anchored to his couch in Montreal, he called Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman and broached the idea of a return. Yzerman, who publicly maintained that door was always open, was amenable.

"Sitting at home is not what I wanted to do. I want to play hockey, help the Crunch,'' Drouin said Tuesday. "I missed hockey sitting at home. Watching hockey on TV and all that stuff is not what you want to do. I'm happy to be back here and playing hockey. I'm a hockey player. You love hockey. You want to be part of a team.''

Drouin was evasive when addressing the issue of his future with the organization.

"I think our relationship's fine. We've talked to make the decision to come back here,'' he said. "I think we're going to fix this in the summer and see how it goes from there.

"It (the non-trade) wasn't my decision. Steve decided to hold on and that's the way it went and we're going to go from there. I couldn't really control it, so I didn't want to get too excited, get traded or not. I was pretty neutral about all that stuff.''

Drouin said he worked out at Concordia University in Montreal during his break. He is expected to be in the Syracuse lineup against Bridgeport on Friday.

"I was skating on my own a little bit. I thought (practice) today was pretty good. I'm definitely going be a little rusty, but it's part of it,'' Drouin said. "It's going to take some time."

Crunch coach Rob Zettler said Drouin's role will be determined after the next few practices.

"We just wanted to make sure we got a lot of compete out of him today, meaning some physical stuff, some body contact," Zettler said. "That's the stuff that you don't necessarily do when you're away from a team. We wanted to make sure we got that early with him when he came back.

"The only thing he really has to do is go out there and work hard on the ice and show that he wants to be here and show that he wants to get playing again. I think that's simply the best thing for him to do and the best thing for everybody involved, the Crunch as an organization, Tampa as an organization and him as an individual. I would say that's what all eyes are on him for."

Drouin said several Lightning and Crunch teammates kept in touch with him during his holdout, but there was no concerted group effort to get him to change his mind.

"Obviously guys, we talked, we're friends in Tampa, and guys from here,'' he said. "But I wasn't trying to listen to all that stuff. I was trying to make sure I wasn't making a bad decision on that stuff.''

Drouin said he was aware of those who disagreed with his decision to walk away, and sounded like a bit of it might have hit home.

"You definitely care how people see you. It's going to be up to my play on the ice to show that I was ready to come back and play hockey,'' he said. "You definitely want to make sure you're perceived the right way.

"Obviously, I wish it (the holdout) maybe went the other way. But it happened that way, and it's going to be fixed in the summer and we'll figure it out. But right now I'm just playing for the Crunch. I'm happy to be here.''

Drouin said so far his Crunch teammates have reciprocated in kind, although he was concerned about their reaction.

"You don't know what to expect,'' he said. "But this group is so great, so I didn't expect [criticism] to come. I came in yesterday, hung out with the guys, went for supper, so it was pretty good. I haven't done that (talked to them as a group), but it's probably going to come soon. They treated me well when I came here last year and this year. And they still do. We're friends here too.''

Angelidis said as long as Drouin shows he's sincere in his efforts, the room should keep the welcome mat out for him.

"I think it's a unique situation for the team and the organization. But he's a good guy,'' Angelidis said. "It wasn't awkward at all in the dressing room. He fit right in.

"I think he's going to have to earn his respect from guys as well. It's not something (where) you just come back in. I think he's going to come in and work hard and that's how everything's going to be fine. He's going to have to come in and play, and he's going to play hard. He can't just come through and go through the motions. I don't think he's got that kind of character. I think he's got a good head on his shoulders where he'll come in and work hard. If he comes in and doesn't work hard, then obviously there's entitlement there. But I don't think it's going to go that way. I think he realized the guys in the dressing room won't allow that to happen.''

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