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Bolts emphasize defensive responsibility on first day of camp

Tampa Bay brought in Kevin Shattenkirk and Luke Schenn this offseason to upgrade the blueline

by Bryan Burns /

The 2018-19 version of the Tampa Bay Lightning scored more regular season goals than any other team in franchise history. Their 319 goals were the most by any team in the NHL since the 1995-96 season 22 years earlier.

Clearly, the offense isn't broken.

Defensively, the Bolts were near the top of the league too, ranking tied for seventh at 2.70 goals allowed per game. But as the season progressed and the wins continued to accumulate, bad habits began to creep into their game. Players weren't as committed to protecting their end of the ice as they were attacking the opposition's.

Most of those shortcomings were masked by the play of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who would go on to win the Vezina Trophy following the season, the first in franchise history. And with the team winning at a historic pace, nobody really paid attention to the eroding defensive play.

But during a stunning four-game sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, those defensive lapses were front and center and proved to be the Bolts' ultimate undoing, a record-setting 62-win regular season wiped away in seven excruciatingly-painful days in early April.

Video: Julien BriseBois on 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning

On their first day back as one collective group since that defeat, the 2019-20 Lightning vowed to ensure those defensive breakdowns don't derail another season.

One by one as they entered an auxiliary locker room to talk to the assembled media, first Tampa Bay general manager Julien BriseBois then Lightning captain Steven Stamkos followed by newcomer Pat Maroon, Victor Hedman, reigning Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov and finally Ryan McDonagh, each spoke about the need to get better defensively and the emphasis that will be placed on protecting their own net this upcoming season.

"We need to limit the number of scoring chances, the quality of scoring chances," BriseBois said. "We have to stay out of the penalty box. Those are areas that ended up biting us in the butt."

The Lightning gave up 4.75 goals a game in the postseason, by far the most of any playoff team (Pittsburgh, which also got swept in the first round, was second worst at 3.50 goals allowed per game). A sizable portion of the team meeting Lightning management and the coaching staff held with the players during Thursday's opening day of training camp centered around developing proper defensive habits during the regular season and sticking to them throughout the season.

"Our group is known as kind of a high-flying, high-octane offensive team, which is great. It's entertaining hockey, but come playoff time, it's a different animal," Stamkos said. "We realize that. We've found ways to have success in the playoffs by playing a more disciplined, not so much a more defensive-minded game but a more responsible game. That's going to be an area that we need to improve on. We have the best goalie in the world we think, and we want to make his job a little easier."

The Lightning made moves this offseason to help facilitate that defensive improvement. Kevin Shattenkirk and Luke Schenn were added to the blue line. Much like the team he's joining, Shattenkirk enters training camp with a chip on his shoulder after having his contract bought out by the New York Rangers in the offseason. He signed a one-year deal with the Lightning in August and is looking to re-establish himself as one of the premier defensemen in the league

The Bolts bolstered their forward group too with the addition of Stanley Cup champion Pat Maroon, who brings a different element to the team with his size and physicality and willingness to mix it up.

The new players - BriseBois estimated the roster would be "about 25 percent" different than last season's - were brought in with that emphasis to defending in mind.

"There's not a huge turnover, but I think there's enough there and I think some significant pieces for sure," McDonagh said. "I think each guy brings a little bit of different strengths to our group. On the back end, those guys are both big guys. It was funny, we were skating last week and kind of looking at our D corps and we're a pretty big group back there with some size when you put us all together there on the ice. We're going to play big back there and Schenn and Shatty, they'll bring a lot of experience too. Been around the league for a lot of years now and bring some different viewpoints back there."

Video: Media Day | McDonagh

The 2018-19 season is over. There's nothing that can be done to erase the sting of getting swept after putting together the finest regular season in franchise history and one of the best the NHL has ever seen.

Why the Lightning were dispatched so suddenly from the playoffs has been identified. Now it's a matter of making sure it never happens again.

"You can't change the past. You can just change our mindsets coming into this year. You can change the approach guys have had. You can change the way you train, change the way you prepare for a season," Stamkos said. "Ultimately, we have to come into this camp and not necessarily think so far ahead, which I think might be the biggest mistake that guys can make is say, 'Let's just get right back to the playoffs and we'll do it better this time.' It's too tough of a league to think that way. We have to come in and identity the areas that need to improve. I think that starts today. It starts with our coaching staff having the summer that they had and the players having the summer that they've had to reflect and just keep moving forward."

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