BRANDON - Even in the middle of sweltering summer heat, preparation for hockey season amps up.
With the Stanley Cup champion crowned, the draft completed and the first day of free agency in the books, the Lightning turned their attention to preparing for next season.
Thirty-one players assembled at the Ice Sports Forum for the start of a five-day prospect camp. The camp features some of Tampa Bay's top up-and-coming talent, including its last three first-round draft picks - Jonathan Drouin, Slater Koekkoek and Andrey Vasilevskiy. The idea in holding these minicamps is to give the players an introduction to life as a professional athlete and provide a strong foundation of training to help advance their careers while strengthening Tampa Bay's system of prospects.
Often, the improvements are tangible.
"We notice it with the off-ice training," Lightning director of amateur scouting Al Murray said. "The exposure to a strength coach and knowing that you are going to be held accountable in improving in that area is going to make them work harder in the strength area and the conditioning component, which is going to make them a better player."
Most of Tampa Bay's top prospects have come through these summer camps the past few years, including Tyler Johnson, Brett Connolly, Vladislav Namestnikov, Alex Killorn, Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio.
Forward Matthew Peca, a seventh-round pick in 2011 who pays his own way to attend so he can maintain his NCAA eligibility at Quinnipiac University, is attending his third prospect camp with Tampa Bay, and understands the benefits. Since his first prospect camp with Tampa Bay three years ago, Peca has added muscle to his 5-foot-8 frame. Though his training regimen has remained primarily the same, he has learned what it means to be a professional hockey player by attending the camps.
"It's about professionalism, you know how to act, you know what to do at every given time," Peca said. "I think just knowing how to act around the staff and everything like that, it certainly benefits the guys on and off the ice."
Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who ran the camp the previous three summers, notices the improvement from year to year when he sees the players come in. The biggest benefit Cooper sees is offering a foundation so when the players' pro careers start, the learning curve is quicker.
"Here at the Tampa Bay Lightning, we have a certain code of conduct of your professionalism, how hard you have to work and things you have to get done, and this is where it starts," he said. "When they get to Tampa or Syracuse (in the American Hockey League), they know what is expected of them."