The Tampa Bay Lightning return to the Amalie Arena ice tonight for the first time since Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
The Bolts host the Nashville Predators in preseason game No. 1 of the 2015-16 season.
A mixture of regulars and prospects make up tonight’s Lightning lineup. Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman will get their first action of the season while rookies like Adam Wilcox, Brayden Point and Mitchell Stephens have an opportunity to show Lightning coaches and management how they can perform in a NHL game setting.
“You’re looking for the compete in the players,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “Are they working hard? Are they trying to do the right things? Are they playing tentative? Are they playing aggressive? You kind of can see some of the things that come natural to them. Basically, that’s how you can judge some players just in the short term. Other than that, you’re hoping the guys are enjoying the experience, taking this in and it’s lighting a fire to them, saying, ‘This is where I want to play some day.’”
Stamkos said he’s excited to play in front of the home crowd and his mind and body are ready for the grind of another year following a shorter-than-usual offseason.
“If I’m going to play, I love playing at home,” Stamkos said. “I’m not complaining about having to start the first game. For me, coming off a long run like we did, you think you’d want some time to relax. But I think coming here in camp, you kind of get rejuvenated, you get that excitement back, you get back in this locker room, you just want to go out there and play. I’ve always been that way. Enough with all the practices and all that stuff, you just want to get out and play.”
THE NEXT KUCH
Last preseason, Nikita Kucherov led the NHL in goals, scoring six times in six games.
That success carried over into the regular season, where Kucherov established himself as major offensive threat on a team filled with them and a potential superstar in the league. The Russian tied for second on the Bolts with 29 goals and finished third for points (65) in the regular season, a year after seeing his role diminish as the season progressed.
“The way Kuch’s season ended the year before, he was being healthy scratched at the end of the playoffs there,” Cooper said. “For him to come in and not only play in every exhibition game, he played every regular season game and every playoff game, and he was instrumental in us getting as far as we did. He’s set a bar for himself, so now he’s got to continue to stay at that pace or exceed what he’s doing.”
So, who will be this season’s Kucherov? Is there a player in training camp ready to step into the spotlight, make a name for himself this preseason and breakout in 2015-16?
Cooper pointed to Jonathan Drouin, Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Nesterov and Andrej Sustr as four guys who might be ready.
“You’re looking for some of those younger guys that don’t have a lot of games under their belt to take that extra step, the same way a (Tyler) Johnson and a (Ondrej) Palat did a year prior,” Cooper said. “If that’s going to be the case, then we’ve got a fun season ahead of us.”
RAISING THE BAR
Cooper said the Lightning are ahead of where they were last year at this point in training camp because of the familiarity the players have in the system and the minimal turnover from last year’s roster to the current one.
That seamless transition is particularly welcomed this season considering the Lightning’s short-lived summer.
“Four days into camp, we’re farther ahead than we were four weeks into the season two years ago,” Cooper said…”It’s comforting knowing these guys are just right back into where we left off in June.”
Cooper said Tampa Bay’s approach to training camp hasn’t changed coming off an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.
But the expectations have.
“Our standards are a little different because they get raised every year,” he said. “I think we’ve gone in the two years I’ve been here from a team that was picked at one end of the standings and now two years later we’re picked at the other end of the standings. Naturally that changes expectations. But, I think we are readily equipped for that.”