TAMPA — Optimism owns opening day.
Every slate starts clean.
As players reported to Lightning training camp on Wednesday, once all the testing was complete, smiles were prevalent.
“Enthusiasm is a great word,’’ Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “You can tell everybody has a little jump in their step. The vets are invigorated ... This is kind of a new era, I suppose, and there is a crop of young talent coming in that the organization hasn’t seen, I think, in quite some time.’’
In many ways, perhaps this season can be considered a transitional year for the Lightning franchise, trending toward the vision general manager Steve Yzerman had in mind when he assumed the role following the 2009-10 season of a team that is capable of being a contender year-after-year. That is how Yzerman lived it as a player with the Red Wings and how he cut his teeth with the same organization as an executive in the front office. In Detroit, he watched the drafting and developing of players, infusing young talent with the core that turned Detroit into one of the top organizations in professional sports.
By no means are the Lightning near that standard three seasons into Yzerman’s tenure, but that blueprint is being followed, with glimpses of it already starting to show.
Two years ago, Tampa Bay’s top farm team captured the American Hockey League championship, and some of those players who led Norfolk to a title got a taste of the NHL last season — Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat, Radko Gudas and Cory Conacher (who was traded to Ottawa for goaltender Ben Bishop). Last season, the Lightning’s AHL team in Syracuse returned to the Calder Cup final, falling short of consecutive championships after a series loss to Grand Rapids, Detroit’s top minor-league affiliate.
Now, many of the Lightning’s top prospects are primed to earn a roster spot with the NHL club to join a nulceus that includes Marty St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nate Thompson, Teddy Purcell, Matt Carle and Ryan Malone, among others.
“Some might look at it like you are going younger, rebuild, and that word gets thrown around a lot. I don’t think that’s the case this year, we have a good nucleus of guys that have been here four or five years now,’’ Stamkos said. “Those young guys, they are young but they have a lot of playoff experience in the AHL the past couple of years. There are a lot of them that have had a chance to play in the NHL the past couple of years, so it’s not like they are coming in blind. They are coming in having had that experience. So it’s exciting, it’s a new team, different than any other we’ve had in the past with regards to having younger guys.’’
That group also includes Mark Barberio, Andrej Sustr, Vladislav Namestnikov, Dmitry Korobov, J.T. Brown and Brett Connolly, all of whom played key roles in helping Syracuse get to the final last season, and they are in line for playing time in Tampa Bay. Behind that group is No. 3 overall pick Jonathan Drouin (who figures to fight for a spot on the Lightning roster this season), Nikita Kucherov, Luke Witkowski, Tanner Richard, Slater Koekkoek, Nikita Nesterov, Adam Erne and other prospects who will soon be knocking on the NHL door.
“We feel this year, more than any other that we’ve been here as a staff, there is a lot of competition for jobs on the roster, we have young players pushing veterans for ice time and trying to get a more increased role, really at all levels (in the organization),’’ Yzerman said. “It just takes time, it’s important to be patient with them, let them go through the process and not try to rush them through things. Three years (since taking over), we are starting to see that, guys that have been in our organization a few years, now pushing for jobs. It’s a program and a process that you want to stick to and follow every year.’’
How does that translate right now for a Lightning franchise that has missed the playoffs five of the past six seasons?
“I think we have a lot to prove. ... There is just a lot of new things, and obviously we have to be better as a team this year to be a playoff team,’’ St. Louis said. “Whether a kid is young or older, if they can come in and make our team better, that’s the most important thing. This next three weeks will probably dictate who is going to be here, and we’ll get a glance at how much better we are getting.’’