Before speaking to the assembled media inside Amalie Arena on the opening day of training camp, Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper addressed his team privately about the upcoming season.
During that talk, Cooper spoke about the expectations surrounding Tampa Bay as it enters the 2014-15 season following last year’s success. He mentioned how the Lightning weren’t going to be sneaking up on anybody this year. Teams would be ready to play the Lightning and give them their best shot.
The major point Cooper reiterated to his team during the nearly hour-long talk, however, is how the team collectively has to improve defensively if it wants to be considered a championship-contending squad.
“It’s not necessarily how many goals we score,” said Cooper, about to embark on his second full season as Lightning head coach. “It’s how many we keep out of the net. That was a big reason we went from a non-playoff team to a playoff team [last season]. It’s also a big reason why we went from a playoff team to a first-round sweep for the same reason, just in reverse.”
Lightning general manager and vice president Steve Yzerman, who also spoke to the media following the first day of training camp, echoed that sentiment.
“We feel we have to improve our team defensively. That doesn’t necessarily mean the defensive core, but, as a group, a team, we’ve got to improve,” Yzerman said. “Part of it, again, was just letting our young guys play and gain experience [last season].
"Unfortunately, we learned some hard lessons there in our four-game series against Montreal, but, again, any of the acquisitions or the signings or the trades that we made were with the idea of trying to become a better team, maybe be harder to play against.”
The Lightning made a number of changes to improve in that regard. The team made a trade with Vancouver to acquire defenseman Jason Garrison on draft day. On the opening day of free agency, the Lightning signed another defenseman, Anton Stralman, from New York, along with his Rangers teammate Brian Boyle, a physically-imposing, 6-foot-7 center. Evgeni Nabokov was inked to a one-year deal to back up Ben Bishop after starting for the New York Islanders the last three seasons. Left winger Brenden Morrow, a 14-year NHL veteran with 94 career playoff appearances, was also added.
“I feel we could be a better defensive team this year, and that’s something we need to improve on,” Cooper said. “We made huge strides from it last year, but we were arguably one of the worst teams in the league at playing defense [two seasons ago].
"Now, we’ve become a moderately average team or a little above average defensive team. Well, let’s turn into a really good defensive team…The big thing with that is, we’re not sacrificing our offense. We want to be a top ten offensive team in this league. We don’t have to be top two or three, that shouldn’t be where we’re sitting. We want to be a top ten team in the league but make sure we’re a top ten team on the defensive side of the puck as well.”
The new additions added to an already solid, young nucleus have national pundits predicting a deep postseason run.
But, Yzerman doesn’t buy into others’ expectations.
“I think we have to be realistic and cautious,” Yzerman said. “We make changes with the idea that we’re trying to improve our hockey team. Until you actually get out on the ice and see how everyone performs together, you don’t really know. As far as other people’s predictions or what not, we’ve got to just completely block that out. It’s irrelevant really. The reality is we’re going to have some really young forwards. We’ve got a lot of second-year players this year. We’re going to give some of our young forwards that were in juniors and Syracuse in the (AHL) an opportunity to play a significant role on the team.
“We’re hopeful they can do it, but until they get out there and do it, we’re uncertain.”
The first day of training camp was mostly administrative, tasks like filling out paperwork, receiving physicals, taking photos and conducting interviews with the media. Friday, the team will get on the ice at Amalie Arena for the first time as an entire group.
That’s when the real fun begins.
“It’s the first day,” Cooper said. “Everybody’s got a great vibe to them right now because everybody’s on equal footing…If you could just bottle up the first day, everybody is really fired up to get everything going. It’s fun to be around.”