The biggest reason for optimism around the Tampa Bay Lightning for the 2013/2014 NHL season might have surprisingly little to do with the additions the team brought in in the off-season, nor will it have much to do with the talent emerging from Syracuse. Instead, the biggest reason for optimism is simple: time.
Of course, every other team in the league will enjoy the same benefit, but not every team is in the middle of a major transition between the past and future, as the Lightning are.
Coach Jon Cooper will finally have time to mold the Tampa Bay Lightning to his liking. He has broadcast at every opportunity that he wants a fast-paced, tough team — a team that he likens to a blend of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers and the Philadelphia Flyers in their Broad Street Bully days. That’s all well and good to hope for, but in the meantime Cooper is doing the pragmatic thing and focusing on the team’s biggest weakness over the past two seasons: defense.
How much of training camp has and will be spent on defensive zone work in training camp? “A majority,” Cooper said.
The Lightning will be approaching defense as a team mentality moving forward, rather than leaving defensemen to worry about defense and forwards to worry about scoring. Valtteri Filppula, a player known for his two-way play and work ethic, will be expected to set the tone and take on much more of a leadership role with the Lightning than he had previously with the Detroit Red Wings. The Lightning have been floundering defensively for years now, while Filppula comes from an organization that prides itself on team commitment to its own zone.
And then there are the defenseman. The Bolts have invited 23 defensemen to training camp. Assuming the team will carry eight defensemen to start the year, and assuming Sami Salo, Matt Carle, Victor Hedman, Eric Brewer, Radko Gudas, and Keith Aulie have already won their places on the roster, that leaves two (or perhaps three) spaces up for grabs.
Mark Barberio is a leading candidate to win one of the remaining spots. Barberio has nothing left to prove at the AHL level, but there will likely be some growing pains if and when he moves up to the NHL. He has looked poised and comfortable in the team’s televised scrimmages, but that does little to answer the biggest questions Barberio will have to deal with, which primarily focus on how he’ll handle NHL-level physicality. Beyond Barberio, Brian Lee is going to try to rebound from a disastrous 2013 campaign which saw him post a team-worst +/- and eventually be demoted to the AHL. And there is an outside chance that towering Andrej Sustr, despite limited professional experience, will leap-frog to the front of the line and start the year with the big club.
For anyone else to make the squad, it will either take stellar play at a lower level, or some severe injuries to the Lightning’s main roster. The Bolts are developing a reputation for bringing their young talent along slowly, which means players like Slater Koekkoek and Dan Blujus still likely have some minor league years ahead of them before they get serious consideration to make the NHL squad.
Whoever winds up making the team, Cooper’s message is clear: the defense needs to improve. Last season’s results are unacceptable. Early signs point to the Lightning buying in to the coach’s system and philosophies, but only time will tell if that will result in an improvement on the ice.