Lightning won’t back down from lofty hopes for coming year

Returning players Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn are among the Lightning's strong group of forwards.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Petty plays Tampa’s Amalie Arena on Sunday. But even the magnificent Rock and Roll Hall of Famer can’t top a Lightning warm-up act skating under the same roof as training camp commences.

The Lightning are "Running Down A Dream" to place this coming season on the club’s greatest hits album. And general manager Steve Yzerman has assembled 63 players of organizational firepower focused on performing into June.

Just 20 open the season on the big stage in October. A lions’ cage of competitive intensity awaits, highlighted by six exhibition games before the NHL sails "Into The Great Wide Open" of the 2014-15 campaign.

Three paragraphs, two Petty classics. We’re rolling.

From the team’s first foray into the NHL in 1992, when founder Phil Esposito gathered his eclectic expansion cast — in Lakeland of all places — through the Stanley Cup shocker of 2004, there has never been a group of such synergy and promise as this.

There are no issues. Ownership beloved. Player controversies exorcised. Contracts signed. All comers stand healthy, hearty and collectively as skilled and capable as any of the 29 competing franchises across the league.

Now to the razor’s edge — as sharp as a skate’s blade — separating victory and defeat.

"We focus on the short term, and the relentless challenges of the season, even-keeled," says 15-year defenseman Eric Brewer, a towering 6-foot-4 presence with the demeanor of a statesman.

Great expectations

"You earn your way to the playoffs," as Brewer and the Lightning proved in a 101-point performance to return to postseason play in 2013-14.

Brewer is one of four past or present team captains on coach Jon Cooper’s roster:

Say hello to hockey’s version of The Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"I remember the great teams of the ’60s and ’70s," said Yzerman, a two-decade Red Wings captain and fond of the game’s history. "You meet those legendary players today, and for all they accomplished, they are so humble and gracious."

This is the culture permeating the men in blue. Plus a hell of a lot of talent.

Yzerman, Cooper and 15 prominent players appeared before Sun Sports’ bright lights and cameras Thursday, parading through the media circus that accompanies teams with a growing celebrity.

I held out a hastily scratched lineup for the Jack Adams Coach of the Year finalist, seeking insight to his seating arrangements for a Ferris wheel of forwards and defensemen.

"I’m not going to get into that," the head coach said. "You don’t expect me to write out the combinations. I need to get them on the ice; to see the chemistry in action. And then decide."

Certainly Stamkos, his fractured leg fully healed, returns to the top center spot after playing right wing with rookie center Tyler Johnson the latter half of the past season. Yet even the most stunning surprise of the past campaign, Johnson, sees adjustments ahead.

"We all may have new roles this year," Johnson said. "That’s been made clear. Whatever we’ve been asked to do, we must do it well."

Do "Johnny" and fellow Calder rookie of the year finalist Ondrej Palat stay together — Palat on the left wing? Or does superbly slick stick-handler Valtteri Filppula skate between the two? Which line will boast the goal-mouth gritty Callahan?

Alex Killorn, rock solid and coming off a career year — who like Johnson and Palat, appeared in all 82 regular season games in 2013-14 — should return to the left flank of Tampa Bay’s top trio. Time and again, Killorn skated into the corner and came away with the puck.

Easier said than done. Cue Petty. "I Won’t Back Down."

How about the towering Boyle, one of the league’s most respected penalty killers and physical centers? Scoring a goal for the Rangers in last summer’s Stanley Cup Final underscored a matrix of problems he presents to opponents. And does Morrow, highly motivated for one more run at the chalice when signed to a one-year contract on the eve of his 15th season, team with Boyle and perhaps a young Richard Panik to form a punishing checking line?

"I’m most proud of the fact that throughout my career, I have never taken a shift off," Morrow said.

Ponder 40 seconds of fury. Over a decade and a half.

Jason Garrison, who adds a booming shot from the blue line, is excited to be embracing the stability of the Bay after a rocky run in Vancouver. He has proven to be valuable in every situation. Now add Stralman to a defensive core that includes a blossoming fellow Swede in Victor Hedman, along with Matt Carle, tall Andrej Sustr as well as the best beard in hockey — that of big hitter Radko Gudas — and there shall be a price to pay upon arrival in Tampa Bay’s zone.

Ben Bishop, displaying moxie on the mound last week throwing out the first pitch at Tropicana Field on Derek Jeter Night, finds that lanky pitching arm ready for the season. This after undergoing wrist surgery that curtailed a 37-win year concluding with a Vezina nomination and a contract extension.

Important dates

"We wanted Ben to focus only on the ice," Yzerman said. "Not to have to think about his contract or anything else other than playing."

That Bishop’s backup is the newly arrived Evgeni Nabokov — he of 402 wins, 42 under postseason pressure to accent 59 career shutouts — offers a ridiculously stout combination. Imagine the confidence emanating from those two locker stalls across the dressing room as Tampa Bay takes to the ice. It fuels a franchise.

So many stories. So much promise. So many players. And so many games to be played.

"Damn The Torpedoes."

No, not Adm. David Farragut, 150 summers ago on Mobile Bay. Try Tom Petty, Sunday night in Tampa Bay.

And the Lightning come October.