The Tampa Bay Lightning entered 2016-17 among the favorites to bring home the Stanley Cup. A playoff miss left them searching for answers. Entering 2017-18, it has become clear the Lightning need to take advantage of their window.
As the Bolts arrived in town for media day to start training camp, it’s clear the same high expectations are there. The same Stanley Cup aspirations still exist heading into 2017-18. However, you could sense a greater sense of urgency from the players, the coaches, and management. Last season’s effort simply wasn’t good enough. They weren’t too pleased about their summer break being much longer than usual.
“Everyone had way too long of a summer. I never wanna do that again. I got home and it was still cold out, so I don’t like that,” said center Tyler Johnson in reference to his hometown of Spokane, Washington.
“We were kind of on a good roll (referring to the previous two seasons), we had some injuries last year and we realized how tough it is to do well in this league,” said winger Alex Killorn. The parity in the league, it’s very difficult to even just make the playoffs. There has to be a hunger this year in training camp and going throughout the year.”
“I was ready for this camp for a couple months now,” said starting goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Captain Steven Stamkos reiterated how anxious the Lightning are to hit the ice and put last season’s effort behind them.
“The guys are anxious to get back and prove to ourselves and everyone we’re not gonna let what happened last year happen again,” said Stamkos.
General manager Steve Yzerman made it clear in a meeting with the players that “our final roster isn’t set yet.”
In other words, there could be a spot or two for the taking. When you’re winning and making deep playoff runs, changes don’t typically follow unless you’re facing a salary cap crunch. After missing the postseason for the first time since 2013, Yzerman put the Lightning on notice.
“There’s some young players now that we think can really push for a spot on this team,” said Yzerman. While the Lightning GM refused to mention any players by name, one has to figure that defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, acquired from Montreal in the Jonathan Drouin trade, will be given every chance to make the team out of camp.
Yzerman added, “It’s an important training camp to make sure that we hit the ground running in the home opener.”
Head coach Jon Cooper expectations remain high for the Bolts heading into 2017-18. However, he senses a heightened sense of hunger from his team.
“I look at the results of guys’ (fitness) testing. The body fat composition, all those things. There’s a noticeable difference from a large amount of our players,” said Cooper. “Guys made a choice this summer to try to finish something we started a couple years ago. Part of what’s gone on here is that we’ve had five months’ break instead of two-and-a-half.”
Cooper also addressed the need to get off to a fast start, reminding everyone that this year’s camp should be smoother than last year’s due to the fact they don’t have 12 players playing in the World Cup of Hockey.
“There was no structure to our training camp because everybody was gone. You’ve got that last exhibition game, there weren’t guys playing in it because they had already played a month,” said Cooper.
“You go into the year thinking, ‘we’re good enough, we don’t have to worry about this.’ It’s the National Hockey League. That just doesn’t happen. I don’t think anyone sat there and consciously thought that way. This group has grown together, they’ve had success together. Different things affected what happened to us,” said Cooper. “We’re back together with that focus we had a couple of years ago. As opposed to we’re thrown together and now we have Game 1. I don’t think we ever really regrouped. A prolonged break over the summer was good for this group,” added Cooper, in reference to players that have been injured.
“They look bigger, they look stronger, they look more fit. We don’t wanna have these long breaks, but now that we’ve had it, we’re glad we’ve had it.”
While the extended break was needed for the Lightning to recharge, Bolts fans are hoping that’s the last of any extended summer breaks this team gets for a long time.