TAMPA, Fla. — There was fitting background noise when winger Ryan Malone spoke about new starts in a crowded hallway. The Tampa Bay Lightning veteran shared optimism for the first full season under coach Jon Cooper, but on the other side of a wall deep in Tampa Bay Times Forum, workers hammered away on thin pieces of sheet metal.
Malone tried to speak through the racket. But the irritating noise carried, muffling his voice in the process. He paused, asked someone what the heck was going on, and then finished his thought.
“Can you hear me?” Malone said.
Most would call what is happening with the Lightning a rebuilding job. Players reported to training camp Wednesday, the first step in moving past a bizarre 2012-13 lockout-shortened campaign that included Guy Boucher’s firing as coach, Cooper’s hiring, winger Martin St. Louis and center Steven Stamkos closing as the NHL’s top-two points earners while Tampa Bay finished with 40 points (third-fewest in the league) and missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.
Cooper disagrees with the reconstruction label. To him, perspective is relative: If a team finishes in the top half of the standings, it’s reloading; rebuilding suggests a negative connotation, a franchise searching to find its way. Clearly, he believes in his vision.
“It all kind of means the same thing,” Cooper said. “Everybody has got the same common goal. I can’t sit here and say we’re rebuilding. We’ve kind of built from the ground up.”
The Lightning, through Cooper, will have a chance to prove as much. They closed 5-8-3 under him during a disappointing 18-26-4 season. Their postseason hopes were all but lost by the time he arrived from the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch last March.
His work late last season was a trial run, a head start, on gaining comfort for a year when Tampa Bay will face a steep task in an Atlantic Division that includes five returning playoff teams: the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings. The Lightning have tried to become faster and younger. Perhaps as many as nine players who appeared in Syracuse last season will compete for up to four open jobs among the top 12 forward spots.
Expect newcomers such as winger Geoff Walker, a free-agent signee, and winger Jonathan Drouin, the third overall pick in the NHL entry draft in June, to work to make an impact too.
“I think last year was a little bit of an odd year, obviously, with the lockout and the abbreviated training camp and the 48-game schedule,” Stamkos said. “It was a little wacky for everyone. It’s nice to come to camp this year knowing you have a couple weeks, you have exhibition games, you know you’re going to be prepared to start the season. I think that’s going to work in our favor, and obviously having Coop last year for the last couple games, it helps with knowing what to expect when he’s talking about systems or how he wants certain guys to play.”
The experience late last season included a learning curve for the coach as well. One part of Cooper’s introduction involved grasping the NHL’s landscape and his tasks within it: The travel, the media responsibilities, the daily operations that come with life behind the bench. The second part, the relationship building with players, was more intimate and could pay dividends in future months.
He considers himself better for having the acclimation process behind him. He predicts it would have taken him until November to move beyond the handshakes, the first-time sensations, had he arrived for this training camp without background knowledge already gained.
“Moving in,” Cooper said, “I have a much better grasp on the team.”
How much will it help? That will be learned once Tampa Bay begins the regular season on a three-game road trip against the Bruins (Oct. 3), Chicago Blackhawks (Oct. 5) and Buffalo Sabres (Oct. 8).
This is a team with many questions that will test Cooper and push him to evolve. How will they be without Vincent Lecavalier for the first time since the respected center joined the league in 1998? Will the defensive weaknesses so often present last spring be fixed? Will they capitalize on what should be another big offensive year for Stamkos and St. Louis? Will the new, young faces produce consistently? If so, how soon?
“The players, in the … games (last season) didn’t see the real Jon Cooper,” said Steve Yzerman, the Lightning’s vice president and general manager. “I think we have enough time to practice, put a lot of the things he wants to do into effect.”
“It’s not new anymore,” St. Louis said of Cooper. “He knows most of the guys and had a chance to get a feel for it. This year, it’s his first training camp. He’s more ready for what’s ahead.”
So are the returning names. The comfort runs both ways.
“We kind of know what he’s going to bring and what he wants from us,” Malone said. “I think that’s the important thing. It’s our job to be prepared and be ready.”
Some would call this Lightning season a rebuilding job. For Cooper, it’s the first full, true look at what he can be as an NHL coach, the introductions behind him and a chance to prove himself ahead.