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Media day marks the start of Lightning training camp

The Bolts commence camp without several marquee names, but expectations remain the same.

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

One look around the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room confirms this training camp will be unlike any other in recent memory.

The players' stalls are half occupied. Missing are marquee names like captain Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov. Twelve Lightning players in all are absent as they compete in Toronto at the World Cup of Hockey.

At the left end of the horseshoe of lockers that ring the locker room, the spot reserved for the team's goaltenders, Ben Bishop's nameplate has been replaced by Kristers Gudlevskis'. Bishop is competing for Team USA and, reportedly, will make his WCH debut tonight. He'll also be back in Lightning camp soon enough as Team USA failed to advance out of the group stage.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper is nowhere to be found around the locker room hallways. He's with Team North America, which still has hopes of making it to the WCH semifinal round. Heading up camp for now will be associate coach Rick Bowness, who jokingly said, "I think this is my 42nd training camp, so I don't think we're going to be too concerned about that," when responding to a question about if he's ready to run the show until Cooper returns.

While Lightning training camp 2016 will be marked more by who isn't at the start of camp than who is, the expectations for the Bolts remain the same: win the Stanley Cup. The Lightning went a long way toward that goal when they re-signed Stamkos for eight more seasons, extended Hedman for eight more seasons and kept together the majority of a team during the offseason that has advanced to the Eastern Conference Final two-straight years.

The road to the Stanley Cup begins today for the Lightning, albeit with a few less passengers for the time being.

"We're excited about our team and what we have in this room," said Tampa Bay forward Brian Boyle, who added he was excited and rejuvenated for the upcoming season.

"Obviously, when you come up short, it's kind of an opportunity missed, and you don't know how many opportunities you get. So, we understand that, we understand the importance of this season and starting it out right."

The Lightning had more players than any other team in the NHL at the World Cup of Hockey. But despite missing over half of its roster at the start of camp due to the tournament, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman doesn't see their absence as being a negative.

"I think it's a great opportunity for some of the other players, and even for some of the younger guys, they're going to get more of a look," Yzerman said. "More of the younger guys are going to get an opportunity to skate with the veteran players, and once we get into the preseason games, albeit we only play six, they're going to get an extra opportunity because we don't know who's coming back and when yet but (the WCH guys) won't play as many games as they would have in the past. It's a great opportunity for the guys. I don't look at it as a challenge."

The aforementioned 12 should be able to hit the ground running when they arrive for training camp due to their early preparation getting ready for the WCH.

"I think pretty much your first week of camp is trying to get the rust off, trying to get the timing back, get the speed and everything," Lightning center Tyler Johnson said. "That's kind of what those guys have already been doing. They're going to be playing at their top shape right now. They've had practices, they've had games at top notch [level]. They don't really need that first week. I think by the time they come back, that's when we're really going to start gelling. That's when you start to do more of your systems, start to get back into that rhythm, and I think that will be a perfect time for them."

Johnson said he feels "100 percent" coming into camp this year, something he couldn't really say last season as he dealt with a lingering issue with his wrist. That issue carried over into and throughout last season, and Johnson said he never fully recovered until this July.

"I didn't have any strength in it until I started working out," he said. "You can't really do too much during the season. I was trying to just make it feel as best as possible, and it took me a while. Now, I feel good, and I don't even think about it anymore. It's not even an issue at all. I feel happy about it."

The only injury concern for the Bolts as they open camp is Ryan Callahan, who had hip surgery during the offseason. Callahan said his rehab is on schedule, and he still figures to return to game action at some point in November.

"It's kind of far away, so you never know if things can speed up quicker than that," he said.

To a man, each Lightning player interviewed during Thursday's media day talked about how important it was to get off to a better start. Last season, coming off an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning limped out of the gate. By December, they were next-to-last in the Atlantic Division and out of the playoff picture. Only a strong push after New Year's allowed them to get back into the race and secure their postseason spot.

"I thought our start last year wasn't where it needed to be, so we've got to make sure we concentrate on that and not look too far ahead," Callahan said. "Those first 10-15 games are really important. That's where our focus has to be."

Expectations are high as the Lightning begin the 2016-17 season, and the team realizes they'll have a target on their backs as one of the top teams in the league over the last two seasons. They're expecting to receive other teams' best shot night in and night out.

Being complacent or thinking they can just show up and make the playoffs again this season are not options.

"We've had a good team for two years, we've gone to the finals, we've gone to the conference finals, but the bottom line is, we weren't good enough," Bowness said. "We didn't win the Stanley Cup. So, we're not going to stop improving, we're not going to stop tinkering until we win the Stanley Cup. We're not here just to win. We want to win the Stanley Cup."

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