Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper is the first to admit that getting behind the bench for a handful of games last season has given him a base for managing a full season.
"In those 15 games (the team went 4-8-3), I got to know some of the NHL landscape, the players and how to adapt to life in the League," Cooper told NHL.com. "To be around it for the month-and-a-half I was here, I think I set myself farther ahead to help put our team in a better position."
Cooper's first full season as an NHL coach comes at a time when the League has undergone realignment, and the Lightning now play in the eight-team Atlantic Division.
"It's a whole different landscape this year with different divisions where [at most] five teams will qualify out of the division," he said. "We must really take advantage of training camp and get off to a good start because it's so hard to make up ground in this League. If you can get off to a good start and are in the hunt, you're making other teams play catch-up."
What did he learn about his team and what does he feel needs to change in order to become a Stanley Cup Playoff contender?
"I think there has been probably a talk that when teams come down to Florida that we weren't that hard to play against," Cooper said. "In my short stint I had here, I just didn't leave the game thinking we were very hard on the other team and that has to change if we want any success. If word around the League starts to get out that Tampa is coming and teams understand that they have to buckle their chinstraps, that'll be a good sign."
Cooper is hoping his veteran leadership and some new faces throughout the lineup will put an end to two straight seasons of missing the playoffs. Prior to taking his position with the Lightning on March 25, he spent three seasons as coach of Tampa Bay's American Hockey League affiliates, the Norfolk Admirals and last season with the Syracuse Crunch.
He'll have two of the NHL's premier point producers at his disposal, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis; a highly coveted 2013 draft pick to possibly play alongside them, Jonathan Drouin; and free agent signee Valtteri Filppula as a potential No. 2 center.
Cooper also has two goalies, Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop, who no doubt will engage in a competitive training camp battle for playing time between the pipes.
That's one area Cooper must figure out during training camp.
Two potential candidates are Teddy Purcell and Alex Killorn. Purcell had 11 goals and 36 points in 48 games last season, his fourth with the team, and Killorn had seven goals and 19 points in 38 games as a rookie. Each will be looked upon to assume greater offensive responsibility now that veteran Vincent Lecavalier no longer is part of the roster. Many expect Purcell to play right wing alongside Filppula.
Filppula had nine goals and 17 points in 41 games with the Detroit Red Wings last season. His 17:46 average ice time per game ranked fourth among Red Wings forwards, and he won 179 of 323 faceoffs (55.4 percent) to lead the team. The 6-foot, 195-pound Finn has plenty of playoff experience, including two goals and six points for Detroit in 14 games last season. He has played in 483 NHL games, all with the Red Wings, scoring 100 goals, 251 points, 15 power-play goals and 12 game-winners.
Third-line center Nate Thompson was signed to a four-year, $6.4 million contract extension in March. Though he might not be considered a key offensive component, Thompson will do everything else for Cooper. He's a valuable penalty killer and a force in the faceoff circle, winning 51.2 percent of the 605 draws he took in 2012-13. He led forwards on the team with 85 hits and ranked third with 31 blocked shots.
Cooper is looking forward to having Brett Connolly in the offensive mix. The 21-year-old had his best professional season in 2012-13, scoring 31 goals and 63 points in 71 AHL games last season. Having Connolly ride shotgun with Thompson is an option.
With Stamkos, Filppula and Thompson filling the top three spots down the middle, it remains to be seen who takes over as the No. 4 center. That's something to be determined in training camp, with Vladislav Namestnikov and Tyler Johnson candidates.
"[General manager] Steve Yzerman and [director of amateur scouting] Al Murray have stocked the prospect pool, but in saying that, there are only so many spots to be had," Cooper said. "The good thing is a lot of these players played for me and I got a good feel for them. Connolly had an exceptional year; Tyler Johnson has had two exceptional years. Even though J.T. Brown and Vladislav Namestnikov had injury problems [last season], they both came into their own when it got down to playoff time.
"Those young players are going to force a lot of veterans to be looking over their shoulder for sure."
Yzerman decided to pass on the top defensive prospect available at the 2013 NHL Draft, Seth Jones, and instead opted for an offensive playmaker, Drouin. It's a decision that may come back to haunt Yzerman if the defense, which yielded 3.06 goals per game last season, fails to improve.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to open up the stat pack and see that we need to be better on defense," Cooper said. "I think we're the only team to have given up over 400 goals over the past two years, so we have to shore that up and it takes a team to do it. You can't sit there and rely on your goaltender to make every single save. All five guys have to buy in when they're playing defense. It's not fun playing defense; it's a lot more fun scoring goals, and while you need to score goals to win a hockey game, to win in this League it's a premium that you keep the puck out of your net."
Tampa Bay has a pretty good blend of puck movers and big hitters along the blue line, but the group couldn't find any consistency in 2012-13. Returning defenders Keith Aulie, Eric Brewer and Radko Gudas ranked among the top three in hits on the team, and Matthew Carle, Victor Hedman and Sami Salo each finished with at least 17 and a positive plus/minus rating.
Three defensemen scored on the power play, with Carle leading with two goals. Carle, who turns 29 on Sept. 25, led Lightning defensemen with five goals, 17 assists and 22 points.
"I like our mix on defense with veteran stability and some young players," Cooper said.
Andrej Sustr and Mark Barberio, who are two of the organization's top prospects along the back end, could be in line for an NHL promotion at some point this season. Sustr (6-foot-8, 225 pounds) signed a two-year contract with the Lightning in March. He ranked first among defensemen at the University of Nebraska-Omaha last season in goals and points. Of his nine goals, four came on the power play, and he was tied for second on the team with 10 power-play points.
Barberio, who played two games with the Lightning last season, signed a one-year, two-way contract in July. He ranked third among AHL defensemen with 34 assists and was sixth with 42 points. He had five power-play goals during the regular season in Syracuse and led AHL defenders in points (15) in 18 games during the 2013 Calder Cup playoffs.
The battle between Lindback and Bishop for the starting role certainly is going to be a good one throughout training camp. Each goalie is out to prove he deserves the majority of the playing time, but it might not matter because Cooper said he intends to keep each fairly active at the outset.
"It's wide open," Cooper said. "I told both goalies that we're in the business of winning hockey games so I'm not really concerned about personal statistics. The goalie that gets us wins is the guy that eventually may push the other to the side."
Cooper was quick to point out that the two young goalies have played a combined 107 NHL games, so there's still a lot to learn.
"They have to learn on the bigger stage," he said. "They're both ready to burst upon the scene, but it's going to be up to each of them to determine who takes the No. 1 role."
Yzerman acquired each via trade, and in the process, parted with plenty, so no goalie will be given preferential treatment. The No. 1 spot will have to be earned.
Yzerman sent a pair of 2012 second-round picks, a 2013 third-round pick and goaltender Sebastian Caron to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Lindback, forward Kyle Wilson and a 2012 seventh-round pick in June 2012. In April, Yzerman traded forward Cory Conacher and a 2013 fourth-round pick to the Ottawa Senators for Bishop.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL