TAMPA — A dimly lit arena served as a somber reminder of what was missing at the Forum on Thursday.
Instead of the buzz of a building preparing to host Game 5 of the opening round of the playoffs, players gathered one final time to collect their sticks and gear, shake a few hands and listen to a final send-off speech from the coaching staff.
But instead of wondering where the offseason was heading after finishing second in the Atlantic Division with 101 points, the level of excitement heading into the summer is different than last season, when Tampa Bay finished 28th in the standings.
“There was a little bit of a more stern message I believe last year,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “This year I think we applauded the players for their regular season and kind of focused on our playoff performance a little bit. So for us the message was the playoffs are the norm now. It shouldn't be, 'Well, are we going to make the playoffs this year?' That should be our minimum standard. How far we are going to advance in the playoffs, that is where our attitude has to be.”
The Lightning took giant strides in that direction this season.
They dealt with the loss of top goal scorer Steven Stamkos to a broken leg, the trade of captain Marty St. Louis, utilizing up to a dozen rookies and the loss of No. 1 goaltender Ben Bishop to a dislocated elbow a week before the playoffs started. Overcoming so much allowed the young players to learn the ups and downs of an NHL season and be better prepared to handle adverse situations, while making them better players and the team stronger heading into next season.
“I think guys realize that we were obviously proud of the way we played this year, especially with everything that we had to deal with as a team and how we did deal with it,” Stamkos said.
“You don't envision being swept in the first round, so I think we learned what it takes to win, the consistency that it takes, the work ethic, the sacrifice. So when we sit here in the summer and look back, I hope that everyone can realize how hard it is to get there and what you have to do to win at that level.
“Obviously we want to get back to that stage every year and we don't want it to be a once-every-couple-of-years kind of thing. I think we have a group that can be there every year.”
With every offseason comes some change. And no team — not even those that capture the Stanley Cup — returns the next season with an identical roster. But with a core of young talent that includes co-rookie of the year finalists Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, defensemen Andrej Sustr, Radko Gudas, Mark Barberio and Victor Hedman, and Bishop in goal, the main pieces are already in place.
And with others on the horizon such as Jonathan Drouin, the No. 3 overall pick in 2013, and highly touted goaltender Andrey Vasilevskiy, the summer looks more like a tweaking situation than any sort of an overhaul.
“I think this year there is a lot more in place,” Cooper said. “We have less holes to fill in that sense. Maybe we could focus on some directions a little bit more, knowing that we are good in a bunch of these areas. I think we will have more of a plan of which direction our team needs to go.”
Tampa Bay has a stable of young forwards throughout the organization and its goaltending depth in the system is arguably the best it has ever been.
However, the defense is not as deep and Tampa Bay lacks some size among the forwards, two areas likely to be addressed in free agency or via the trade route.
“I think it's best that I sit down with Coop, and the plan is to next week sit down and go over our team, kind of go over everything and decide what we need to do,” general manager Steve Yzerman said. “I have some thoughts. ... I prefer to keep those to myself for the time being, but we do have to improve in certain areas and, over the course of time, change our team a little bit.”
The Lightning have a lot of speed and skill, but Cooper hinted at one area he feels needs to be addressed.
“I think defensively we could've been a little harder, and that's not just on the defensemen. That's our forwards, too,” he said. “We play really hard, but sometimes we are not as hard to play against as we need to be. I think if we went on in the playoffs it would've been much more difficult for us to keep going just because we have a little bit more flash-and-dash to our game than grind-it-out.
“When you get to the playoffs there are times that you have to grind out games. That's something that you can't just change overnight. I think you get better at that as players get older, so those will be things that we will work on in the summer and see if we can get a little bit bigger, stronger as a team but still keep our core guys together.”