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Yzerman on Drouin: 'Anything can happen'

Lightning GM not ruling out forward's return this season

by Dan Rosen @DRosenNHL / Senior Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- Jonathan Drouin called Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman last week to say he was ready to be a professional hockey player again.

"I can't say I was expecting it," Yzerman told before the Lightning's 4-2 loss at the Philadelphia Flyers ended a nine-game winning streak on Monday.

Yzerman, albeit surprised, is as curious as anyone else, which is a big reason why he lifted Drouin's suspension on Monday, the one he put in place on Jan. 20 when the 20-year-old forward failed to report to a game with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League.

Drouin is expected to report to Syracuse for practice on Tuesday. By being reinstated Monday, Drouin is eligible to play for Syracuse in the Calder Cup Playoffs should they make it. He had to be on the roster by Monday to be eligible.

"He called and said he would like to come back, he wants to play hockey," Yzerman said. "He misses playing. He's been out. He's a hockey player and he wants to play."

That the phone call came after the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline which passed last Monday is important. Drouin has requested a trade and Yzerman did make efforts to trade him before the deadline but was unable to find a deal to his liking. Drouin wants to return to the NHL and Yzerman is giving him a chance.

Drouin's motive might be to dominate in the AHL to force his way back onto the Lightning's roster this season. There's also a chance he might be going to Syracuse to play out the rest of the season while getting paid to save face before Yzerman again tries to trade him in the offseason.

His first game since Jan. 17 could come Friday.

Tweet from @drosennhl: Yzerman on Drouin: "I will do whatever I think is the best thing for the Tampa Bay Lightning and that could include recalling Jonathan."

Assuming Drouin's motive is sincere, that he wants to restart his career and regain some trust, it's fair to wonder if the news Monday means the strained relationship between him and the Lightning can be mended to the point where his future might actually be in Tampa Bay.

The Lightning selected Drouin with the No. 3 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.

"Anything can happen," Yzerman said. "All I will say is I will do whatever I think is the best thing for the Tampa Bay Lightning and that could include recalling Jonathan. If he gets back and he plays well and he's going to help us win and he's in the right frame of mind and he deserves it, he'll get recalled."

It will take a lot on Drouin's end for Yzerman to consider recalling him before the end of the regular season.

For starters, it's hard to make up for being out for a month and a half.

If Drouin steps foot on the ice with Syracuse on Tuesday, it will be his first practice with a professional team since a morning skate Jan. 20 in Toronto, hours before he failed to report to the game, triggering the suspension.

To expect him to step into Syracuse's lineup and light it up would be unfair. He's been skating and working out at home outside Montreal, but the AHL is a legitimate professional league, the second best league in North America, one of the top leagues in the world.

Drouin had three points in seven AHL games before his suspension.

"I don't think conditioning is an issue for him. It'll just be a timing thing," Yzerman said. "If he's committed to it, which he's told me he is, I expect him to play well."

It likely will take a while for Drouin to earn Yzerman's trust back, which is another reason why it would be foolish to expect a recall any time soon.

But if Drouin does play well enough to make Yzerman to consider a recall, what happens next?

"We'll worry about that if we get into the situation," Yzerman said. "We're trying to make the playoffs here."

Tweet from @drosennhl: SY on Drouin: "If he gets back, plays well, he's going to help us win, in the right frame of mind and he deserves it, he'll get recalled."

The Lightning have positioned themselves to win the Atlantic Division. They have a one point lead on the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers for first place in the division. They have Stanley Cup championship aspirations. They have a really good team and they're loaded up front.

Short of an injury to a top-six forward, it doesn't seem as of now that Drouin would have a place on the Lightning's top two lines. Lightning coach Jon Cooper seems set there and also said the third line of Valtteri Filppula, Cedric Paquette and J.T. Brown has been arguably the most consistent line for the Lightning in the past 15 games.

Maybe there's room for Drouin on the fourth line, but that puts the Lightning back into the same predicament as last season, when Cooper eventually didn't feel comfortable using Drouin on the fourth line and made him a healthy scratch for 20 of the 26 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

In fact, Cooper's use of Drouin on the fourth line this season is ultimately what triggered his demotion to Syracuse on Jan. 2. He came back from an injury, his third within the first two and a half months of the season, played 10:51 in a fourth-line role against the New York Rangers on Dec. 30, and two days later Yzerman sent him down, saying he needed to play more and he'd have a better chance to do so there.

That irony doesn't matter anymore. Drouin blinked first last week and dialed Yzerman's number. Yzerman responded by offering him an opportunity.

Drouin still faces a long road back to the NHL this season, but Yzerman is curious and open-minded.

"I would not rule anything out," he said.

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