No longer a surprise, Lightning ready for season of great expectations

In his second full season with Tampa Bay, Jon Cooper's Lightning squad won't fly under the radar in 2014-15.

Sergei Belski/Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. — There will be no surprises after a season when the Tampa Bay Lightning surprised nearly everyone, including themselves. A year ago, they had a hazy goaltender situation, a coach entering his first full NHL campaign and questions about leadership after long-time franchise staple Vinny Lecavalier was bought out in the offseason.

Now, the Lightning are grown up. Ben Bishop, if he stays healthy, should be one of the league’s top netminders. Coach Jon Cooper, a curiosity last fall, has evolved into a just-one-of-the-guys face of Tampa Bay’s future behind the bench. The storms that came with the departures of Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis are long gone, allowing center Steven Stamkos to become comfortable with the "C" he seemed destined to wear below his left shoulder shortly after he was drafted first overall in 2008.

After all the injuries and growing pains of last season, after the 101 points and the strange trade that sent St. Louis to the New York Rangers, after being swept in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals by the Montreal Canadiens and the calls to learn from the quick exit, there stood Stamkos on Thursday with his arms folded over a blue T-shirt with his blue cap flipped backward deep at Amalie Arena on the first morning of training camp. Life had changed.

"I think we have to realize it’s going to be tougher this year," he said. "I know the expectations are higher, but we’re not going to surprise anyone this year. The young guys that had great seasons last year, it’s going to be a challenge for them, too. Teams are going to know what to expect. In that regard, I think we can use that as motivation that teams aren’t going to be surprised by the Tampa Bay Lightning anymore."

Expectations are difficult to manage. They can be a mirage, something that leaves the opposite intended effect after dreams give way to reality.

Ask the Tampa Bay Rays, who began spring training with visions of "eating last" and instead stand five games below .500, with the chance that they’ll be eliminated from the race for the American League’s second wild-card berth Friday.

A lack of expectations, meanwhile, lifted the Lightning last season. Sure, they had Stamkos and St. Louis, but their roster was full of young and unproven personalities who some assumed would wilt when faced with the wrath of the NHL’s grind.

Most thought the time for Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and others would come. But 2013-14 wasn’t supposed to be the moment that the Lightning reached the playoffs for the second time in seven campaigns.

Especially not after Stamkos’ broken right tibia. Especially not after St. Louis’ trade. Especially not after so much trial and drama.

But the rise occurred earlier than expected, and because of it, the start of this training camp feels different. Little about the current landscape resembles the fog from a year ago.

"I guess the one way to manage it is try and perform to those expectations," Cooper said.

"I really look at the big picture: Would you rather coach a team that nobody picked or everybody is picking them to come last? Or would you rather pick a team that everybody thinks is going to come first?"

The answer is easy, of course, and Cooper’s lack of fear in confronting all the expectations from the outside is revealing of his comfort. He’s no longer the hotshot up-and-comer from the American Hockey League hired to calm the waters. He’s more aware of his place.

Cooper’s baptism was by the hottest of fires last season, and it included so many flashpoints: The gruesome injury to one star (Stamkos), the bizarre demand for a trade by another (St. Louis) and the brief appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs that can serve as a springboard for this winter.

Sights and sounds

Cooper has grown with the Lightning. His fingerprints on his team’s identity are unmistakable.

"It’s coming from the outside, these expectations," forward Ryan Callahan said. "You still have to go on the ice and do it in that room."

The Lightning, now fully Cooper’s group, have the talent to do so. There are the familiar names — Stamkos and Bishop, Palat and Johnson, Callahan, Victor Hedman and Valtteri Filppula — but there are new additions such as Brian Boyle, Evgeni Nabokov and Anton Stralman that will complement the old core. There’s also the chance that hyped prospect Jonathan Drouin will make an impact.

It’s easy to see why it feels like Tampa Bay ended last season as one thing and enters this campaign as something more.

"It’s just a matter of feeling comfortable and taking the next step, all those young guys who will be a part of this team," Stralman said. "Everybody has to help them develop and find their way in this league. It’s tough. I’ve been on a pretty long road myself. It takes some time to kind of go into the expectations. And obviously, coming from a great year that they did can be a little hard to handle."

But the task will only be as hard as the Lightning allow, their perspective more mature and their capacity to handle crisis more obvious than it was at this time last year. Last fall, the outlook was about discovering an identity under Cooper, about setting the foundation for future gains with an unproven leader and largely unknown young stars.

At the time, no one knew that they were strapping themselves into a seven-month thrill ride that included more dips and twists than ever imagined. How could they have predicted such a wild, weird and emotional experience?

So the expectations are a reward for their ability to survive last season. They are recognition of not only what the Lightning can be, but what they have been as well.

Still, there are questions. They must show that they can handle the responsibility that comes with a heightened profile. They must show that a successful transition from possible contender to the bona-fide real thing can happen. They must show that they can manage the movement from hunter to the targeted.

"You’ve got to just completely block that out," said Steve Yzerman, the Lightning’s vice president and general manager. "That’s irrelevant, really."

Added Bishop: "Teams aren’t going to come in here thinking it’s going to be an easy win. They’re going to come in ready to go, so I think we’ll have to be ready. We’re probably going to get the best from every team now. We’re not going to get their ‘B’ effort."

No surprises, no fear.

The Lightning say, "Bring it on."

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.