NEWARK, N.J. - A preteen Jonathan Drouin skated onto the ice one summer at a small arena outside Montreal, wanting to play with the big kids from the Lac St. Louis Lions, the local AAA Midget team. Alex Killorn, like most teenagers, raised an eyebrow at the sight. "Even though it was just summer hockey, we looked at him like, 'Who was this kid?' '' Killorn recalled recently of the first time he met Drouin, the Lightning's first-round pick in Sunday's NHL entry draft. It didn't take long for the wannabe hockey player to draw the attention of Killorn and his friends.
In those summer pickup games, Drouin skated with ease around players four years older. The young phenom would dangle the puck on his stick and weave up the ice, looking nothing like an underclassman. It wasn't a fluke. Whatever initiation process Drouin was subjected to, he passed and simply became one of the guys. "He proved himself pretty quickly," said Killorn, 23, a 2007 third-round draft pick of the Lightning who just completed his rookie year with Tampa Bay. "He was confident when he played and he didn't care. He was so skilled he would go through guys, so we treated him as one of us." There were many times Drouin spent the morning skating with his age group, then came right back and skated with the older group. As each summer came around, Killorn noticed Drouin's steady improvements. Then came last year. "He always had good hands and stuff, but you never know when they're that young how good he can be," Killorn said. "But he kept getting better and better until last summer when I saw him I was like, 'Holy (cow), this kid could go really high in the draft.' "He's just progressed tremendously." That accelerated path led Drouin, 18, to the Lightning, who selected the 5-foot-11, 190-pound winger with the third pick. Heading into last season, Drouin was considered a fringe first-round pick, likely targeted for the early second round. But his improvement from his rookie season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as a midseason call-up with Halifax to the end of his first full season with the Moose shot him up the draft boards. In strong showings at the Team Canada camp for the Under-18 championship and the World Junior U-20 camp, Drouin's skill set stood out. He ended the season as the MVP of the QMJHL regular season and playoffs and helped Halifax win the Memorial Cup championship. He was the first draft-eligible player since Sidney Crosby to be named the top player in the CHL, which spans all three major junior hockey leagues. The turnaround came from within. "My confidence," Drouin said of his rise up the rankings. "When I came in this year, I had a really good start to the season early on. Then the World Juniors really helped. A 17-year-old making that team is pretty rare. And I think my game really stepped up when I came back in January. And it went on to be that way in the playoffs." The Lightning's second-round pick Sunday, forward Adam Erne, faced off against Drouin many times when Quebec faced Halifax the past two seasons. Drouin is a handful to try to defend, he said. "We've had our battles," Erne said. "He's got great vision, great hands, just a great overall player. You just watch his highlights and you can see, he's a pretty incredible guy." That was noticeable, even at an early age, and has only increased as Drouin became older. "He's probably ready to step up and make an impact just because of his skill," Killorn said. "He knows how to use his body. He's not the biggest player, but he knows how to use his frame. He's really strong on his feet and I think the way he has trained the last few years has helped him out. "He'll be a great player in the NHL for sure." [email protected] (813) 259-7835 Twitter: @erlendssonTBO