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Lightning hungry to get back to work, erase last season's disappointment

After a down 2016-17 campaign, the Bolts are eager to get back to work

by Bryan Burns /

Before the 2016-17 Tampa Bay Lightning season, Tyler Johnson had never been on a team that missed the playoffs.

Heck, the last time he had a prolonged summer break was over a decade ago.

He was only 14 years old.

Last season was just different for Johnson and the Lightning, from the long-term injuries to key players that plagued the team throughout to the slow start that extended into a subpar first half of the season and prolonged all the way to the All-Star break to the unexpected early exit for a team picked as a favorite to win the Stanley Cup by quite a few pundits in the preseason. 

"I never want to do that again," the Lightning center said about 2016-17. "I got home [Spokane, Wash.], and it was still cold out, so I don't like that."

Video: Yzerman on training camp and Stamkos

Truth is, nobody in the Lightning organization, from the players, management and coaches to the fans forced to suffer through a down year, want to go through another season like 2016-17.

As the Bolts opened training camp for 2017-18 on Thursday at AMALIE Arena, the hunger to not repeat the failures of the past season was on every player's mind.

And it was in everybody's answers as they spoke to the assembled media.

"It's humbling for us all," general manager Steve Yzerman said about the Lightning missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 season. "You're watching the (playoff) games, you want to be out there, the players, we all want to be involved in it…It's hard to watch, but we've got work to do. We'll try to learn from last season and make things better, all of us."

The return of a healthy Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan should help improve Tampa Bay's outlook for the upcoming season. Callahan played in only 18 games last season; Stamkos was around for only 17. Both, however, are as excited as they've ever been in their career for the start of training camp. Callahan is fully fit after a second surgical procedure to repair his hip and a full summer of training under his belt as he enters camp. Stamkos is not quite 100 percent but said he's feeling better right now than at any point since he had surgery in November to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee.

Video: Stamkos on Hurricane Irma and his health

Stamkos and Callahan are expected to be in the lineup for Opening Night October 6 at home versus the Florida Panthers.

"We should play with a little more urgency knowing what happened last year, and that will fall on us as leaders and myself as captain to make sure the guys are ready," Stamkos said. "There's no sugar coating it, it wasn't acceptable last year to not make the playoffs. We've added some key pieces. Some guys have shown what they can do in the league last year in terms of it being their first or second year in the league. Now, the expectation is raised for them as well, and they need to step up. So, it'll be an interesting camp to have everyone back together and the guys battle for spots and it should be some good competition."

The Lightning certainly have plenty of options to choose from when selecting the squad that will represent the organization on Opening Night. In addition to bringing in free agent forward Chris Kunitz and defenseman Dan Girardi, a number of players who helped the Syracuse Crunch reach the Calder Cup Finals last season will make a push in camp to make the Lightning roster. There are also a handful of players - highlighted by elite defenseman prospect Mikhail Sergachev - trying to make the monumental leap from junior hockey to the NHL as well. 

After watching the rookies compete in three exhibition games against Nashville over the weekend, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said there's more depth in the organization right now than he's seen in his seven years with the team.

"I look at, back when I was coaching in the American League, I was sitting here thinking about all the players that were scratched. Well, there weren't really any players that were scratched because that prospect pool wasn't the way that it is today," Cooper said. "And if you looked at the American League team that was just in the Calder Cup Final, you look at the guys that weren't playing and prospects on this team, they're obviously just raw and young right now, eventually those guys are going to be playing in the NHL. That's how Steve has really grown this organization because it doesn't happen overnight."

The pieces are back in place for the Lightning to return to respectability, to again become a team many expect to challenge for a Stanley Cup. Focusing on the defensive side of the puck will be critical said Callahan. Also, a fast start to the season, something that has eluded the Bolts each of the previous two seasons, will help.

In 2015-16, the Lightning were able to overcome a slow start to reach the Eastern Conference Final. Last season, the Bolts couldn't quite make up for stumbling out of the blocks.

Video: Callahan: "This is big for me"

"You can't lose too many games in the beginning or it's going to come back and haunt you," Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman said. "We lose out on a playoff spot by one point or two points and you look back and you look at games and it's like, maybe we get a point here, a point there and we'll be in the playoffs. That's easy to say now, easy to look back at but obviously we have to learn from the beginning of last year and obviously take the positive we had in the final third of the season.

But this summer was way too long for us, and we don't want that to happen again."

The mission to erase those bitter memories starts now.

To a man, the Bolts feel they're ready.

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