The target on the back of the Tampa Bay Lightning grew larger once they evolved from a team projected to rebuild to one expected to contend.
And not just for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs either. The Lightning are a chic pick to go deep in the postseason; The Hockey News has them pegged for the Stanley Cup Final. Expectations are heightened in Tampa Bay and that's fine with coach Jon Cooper, a finalist last season for the Jack Adams Award and NHL.com's favorite to win it in 2014-15.
"The first year that I've been a part of a team has always been a big transition year, and last year was no different," Cooper said on the Lightning's Power Play Podcast. "But I'm really excited about this year because there's less unknowns out there. We know each other, we know what our expectations are, we know what our standards are and we know what we can do. I think last year was a little bit of a coming out party for us. Now we have a little bit more of a bull's-eye on our back. Let's accept that challenge. I'm really, really excited for that."
Despite losing Steven Stamkos for four months with a broken leg and trading captain Martin St. Louis, Cooper worked several young players into the lineup and led the Lightning to a 46-27-9 record in his first full season as coach, good for second place in the Atlantic Division one season after Tampa Bay finished 28th in the League.
After being swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference First Round, Cooper and the Lightning enter this season motivated to exceed expectations.
"All of a sudden you tweak your lineup a little bit and people are expecting the world out of your team," Cooper said. "It's funny how that works. Because it was just 12 months ago we were looked at as a bottom-feeder in the League. Now I want to see how much we've grown from our playoff experience and through this summer. I'm really excited to see if this team can take another step."
Lindy Ruff, Dallas Stars -- Ruff, who won the Jack Adams coaching the Buffalo Sabres in 2005-06, leads a loaded Stars team coming off its first playoff appearance since 2008. The additions of forwards Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky strengthens an offense that averaged 2.82 goals per game last season while moving Dallas into the contender conversation.
The pieces are in place for Ruff, who guided the Stars to a 40-31-11 record in his first season with the Stars. Among them are returning linemates Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, who combined for 71 goals, 92 assists and 573 shots on goal.
Todd Richards, Columbus Blue Jackets -- Richards earned a two-year contract extension after leading the Blue Jackets to a franchise-best 43-32-7 record in 2013-14 and the first playoff victories in team history when they pushed the Metropolitan Division champion Pittsburgh Penguins to six games in the first round.
Under Richards, who took over on an interim basis halfway through 2011-12, the Blue Jackets have improved in the win column each season. If Richards can meet or surpass last season's win total leading a team that could start the season without top forwards Boone Jenner (broken left hand) and Nathan Horton (back), as well as working in Ryan Johansen, who signed a three-year contract Oct. 6, he'll merit serious Adams consideration.
"Curveballs," Richards told the Columbus Dispatch regarding the Blue Jackets' roster flux. "It doesn't matter whether it's now or the regular season. You're always dealing with some sort of adversity."
ALSO IN THE MIX: Bruce Boudreau, Anaheim Ducks; Mike Johnston, Penguins; Barry Trotz, Washington Capitals