BRANDON — After 16 games last season, Lightning players "felt maybe a little lost," Vinny Lecavalier said.
Going into Game 16 this season, Thursday with the Wild, the captain lauded the difference.
"It really feels like a team," he said. "We really know we're going in one direction."
Sixteen games out of 82 generally isn't enough time to draw conclusions. But it's a benchmark for Tampa Bay because it was after 16 games last season that Barry Melrose was fired as coach.
It is notable, then, the pulse of the locker room is so strong. Winning helps. The Lightning (6-4-5) was a playoff team if the postseason began Tuesday.
But players credit coach Rick Tocchet, elevated from an assistant when Melrose was canned, for bringing a better-defined on-ice system and stability to the relationship between players and coach, which they said was strained under Melrose.
"When a team has faith in a coach, it makes it a lot easier to go play," goaltender Mike Smith said at the Ice Sports Forum. "When you have confidence in the guy leading you, there's that calmness in the dressing room we didn't have before."
"I think a lot of that is guys have more awareness of what's expected of them on the ice," center Jeff Halpern said. "We still have things to work out, but there's more awareness of that, so it allows for players to find other ways to spend their time other than sitting in the back room and (complaining) about things."
Tocchet, 45, said he had a short to-do list when he took over:
Establish trust between the players and coaching staff.
Explain "what is tolerated and what isn't in how we want to play."
And perhaps most important, he said, "Make sure players know what your system is.
"When a player asks me where to go off a draw, I have an answer for him. I'm not saying my system is the best and I'm not saying I'm going to be right all the time, but you have a better chance succeeding when everybody knows where they're going on the ice."
Tocchet leans on associate Rick Wilson and assistants Wes Walz, Adam Oates and Cap Raeder to reinforce a message sent with video, pointed practices and meetings.
"And if they think I'm off base, they tell me," Tocchet said. "I don't need yes men."
Tocchet also benefits from a more cohesive locker room. And he coached 66 games last season, establishing a rapport with the leadership group that remained.
Melrose, who led the Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup final but spent 12 years as an ESPN analyst before coming to Tampa Bay, declined comment. It could not have been easy, though, thrown into a team of new faces.
"Everybody comes from a different team and they think the system they played before works and they want to influence your team in a certain way," Halpern said. "I think we had a lot of that last year, where guys wanted to bring in a piece of the team they can from. And we had a coach that was new, too. It was tough on Barry. It was unfair to him."
Still, Lecavalier said, "There was no direction, a lot of gray areas. When you have that, you can't have success. Your philosophy has to be one thing, bringing everybody in the same direction."
As it seems to be going now.
"We're right in the thick of it," he said. "The way it feels in the dressing room, the way we're acting, the way we're playing, the confidence we have, we're right there, and we want to stay there."
For more than 16 games.
HEDMAN IMPROVING: Victor Hedman (concussion) said Monday's brain function test was normal, and Tocchet said the rookie defenseman could play Thursday.
STAMKOS OKAY: Center Steven Stamkos left practice with what appeared to be a jammed left wrist after his feet got tangled with Smith's stick and he slammed into the end boards. But Tocchet said, "I don't think it's a major thing," and Stamkos said he expects to play.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]