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by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

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The Lightning are looking forward to training camp, five months away, after a strange and difficult 2008-09 season.
It isn’t just about forgetting the adversity and the inordinate amount of injuries they had to endure the past seven months. It is because they are anxious to write the next chapter, which they think can be a much more pleasant read.

“It’s a huge summer for the team,” Lightning goalie Mike Smith said. “We have a great core of players here, great leadership. I think everyone should be excited about that. We just have to put some [new] pieces into the puzzle and go from there.”

It won’t be easy. The veterans know it. The youngsters know it. They have to be better mentally and physically.

The Lightning lost 29 one-goal games, including 18 of 23 in overtime or the shootout.

The players also remember they were the healthiest when Tampa Bay went 10-5-1 in 16-game stretch in late December and early January.

“Things are moving in the right direction,” said center Steven Stamkos, who broke the club’s rookie scoring record with 23 goals. “Our coaching staff has brought in a good structure. Everyone is going to be prepared. That’s one step ahead of this past season’s training camp when we had 13 new players.”

It will not be a rebuilding process. Interim coach Rick Tocchet used the word “retool.” He has seen teams in this position turn it around quickly before.

You can argue the Lightning start from a better place than even many of the teams above them in the standings, with the base of talent on the roster.

Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis are all-stars. Smith played like one the first half of the season before being injured. Ryan Malone has scored 53 goals the last two seasons and has added leadership. Stamkos had 46 points in a season where he started slow as an 18-year old. Defensemen Andrej Meszaros and Paul Ranger are expected to return healthy after shoulder surgery. Vinny Prospal has 599 career points. The Lightning also have the second pick in the draft.

“We have a clear, decisive plan to how we’re going to improve,” Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton said. “We have very clear goals. We want to be competing for a playoff spot next year. It’s a big jump up, but we believe we can do it with the pieces we have in place.”

St. Louis was the team MVP, leading the way with 30 goals and 80 points, while earning a plus-4 rating for a team that was minus-72 overall. He had four points in the first period of a 6-4 victory over Toronto Feb. 12, an effort which Tocchet called one of the best he has ever seen for 20 minutes.
“Marty asked for a DVD of game 80 [Washington, April 7],” Tocchet said. “We’re not even close to the playoffs and he went home and watched the game. That says what type of player he is. He is our leader and that stuff rubs off on his teammates, especially on a guy like Stamkos. It makes my job easier to have Marty St. Louis on the team.”

Stamkos had plenty of tutelage from veterans Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi, Lecavalier, Malone, Adam Hall and St. Louis, among others. Slowly, his tremendous talent shined through.

 Through the first 40 games, Stamkos had four goals, 10 assists and was minus-11. In the final 30, the first pick of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft had 19 goals, 13 assists and was minus-2. Monday, he was named to Team Canada for the World Championships along with St. Louis.
“I’m not going to set goals for him or put any more pressure on him,” Tocchet said. “He’s just got to be Steven Stamkos. I think when he is himself, like he was the last two months, that’s when he’s at his best. He’s a good hockey player and he’s going to continue to grow into a very good hockey player. If he keeps playing like this, he should be able to be on the score sheet most nights.”

Smith gave the Lightning a chance to win every night, with a solid .916 save percentage and 2.62 goals-against average over 41 games before his season ended with post-concussion syndrome. After three seasons without a true No. 1 goalie, the Lightning now have one in Smith.

“He was one of the best goalies in the league the first half of the season,’ Tocchet said.
Lecavalier scored 29 goals, coming off shoulder surgery. He said he expects his shoulder to be stronger going into training camp and his right wrist, which bothered him for a while, is progressing well after surgery earlier this month.  He is expected to begin training in a matter of weeks.

“This is the most important summer of my career,” Lecavalier said. “That motivates me.”

Injuries forced the Lightning to use 50 players this season and a league-record 22 defensemen. The revolving door did help in one way. The Lightning got a chance to look at a lot of their younger players for extended periods and several emerged.

None stepped up more than defenseman Matt Smaby. He played in 43 games, establishing himself as a top-six defenseman in the league with his physical play and improved decision-making.

“My confidence level increased,” Smaby said. “It’s hard to play when you’re walking on eggshells. I was in a situation where I didn’t have to worry about being sent down and my play steadily improved. I’ll have a chance to make the team in training camp next year. That’s all I can ask for.”

Defenseman Matt Lashoff, acquired from Boston for Recchi at the trade deadline, showed his potential as an offensive threat in a short stint at the end of the season. Forward Steve Downie, acquired from Philadelphia in the Matt Carle deal, made an impression in a midseason call up and center Paul Szczechura earned plenty of playing time in 31 games, contributing nine points.
Karri Ramo had some outstanding games in goal in Smith’s absence, getting into 24 contests. 
 “Karri made some strides,” Tocchet said. “He definitely has the talent.”

 Defensemen Ty Wishart and Kevin Quick, both in their first pro season, and Vladimir Mihalik, in his second, got a taste of NHL play.
“The one positive I take out of this is all the guys that were forced into playing, probably earlier than they thought they would,” St. Louis said. “It helps our depth and it helps the organization to see where all those young guys are at.”

Prospects Radek Smolenak, Brandon Segal and Blair Jones all scored 20 or more goals for AHL affiliate Norfolk. Dana Tyrell, a second-round draft pick in 2007, made the Canadian junior national team in the winter and should be in Lightning camp in September. In addition, goaltender Dustin Tokarski led that Canadian team to the World Junior Championship and had 60 saves in a victory for Spokane of the Western Hockey League recently.

The foundation is set.

Now the road begins.

“I think everybody is just waiting to wipe the slate clean and go to work, to have a team we can be proud of next season,” Tocchet said. “There’s a lot of lessons to be learned. The guys that learn from mistakes the quickest are the ones you want to have on your hockey club.”

St. Louis said one thing to remember about the 2008-09 season is how bad it felt so they can work to never have that feeling again.

“I think it’s important for the franchise to show the fans and each other that we are not just going to sit back and let this keep going in that direction,” St. Louis said. “Everybody has to do their part. They have to and we have to as players in our summer preparation.”

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