Fennelly: Lightning must prove itself to erase doubts

After a disappointing season, the Lightning has a chance to be special. That chance begins Thursday with training camp. 

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper minds the bench during the first period of Tuesday's (3/21/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Arizona Coyotes at Amalie Arena in Tampa. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times
Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper minds the bench during the first period of Tuesday's (3/21/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Arizona Coyotes at Amalie Arena in Tampa.DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
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Lost in the delayed start to the Bucs season is that the team with the best chance at a championship opens training camp next week, under the cover of football.

The Lightning.

Remember?

It was easy enough to forget after last season, when all its potential and possibilities vanished in a season that came up short of even the playoffs.

And it will be easy enough to break this team into little pieces if it doesn't come through this time. GM Steve Yzerman has tweaked the roster. It had better be enough.

Remember when the Lightning was one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup?

That was then.

RELATED: Steven Stamkos ready for Lightning camp.

This team still has a chance to be special. That chance, at least the work behind it, begins Thursday with training camp. With expectations. With questions.

The window remains open.

But the Lightning has to go prove itself.

Until it does that, we're right to doubt this team.

It still has some of the most talented players on the planet, including defenseman Victor Hedman, who is ready for his Norris Trophy closeup, and Nikita Kucherov, who is a dead-eyed scoring machine. And, yes, Steven Stamkos, still.

The window remains open.

This team can and should win the Atlantic Division, over Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs, and Carey Price (and Jonathan Drouin) and the Canadiens.

This team can make a run. It made the Cup final two seasons ago. It made the conference final a season ago. Remember?

RELATED: Tyler Johnson says revamped summer routine paying off.

The best thing coach Jon Cooper's team might have going for it is that people will rightly be wondering if this team can get back to where it was. The Lightning isn't in the weeds, but it wouldn't be a bad thing if it approached this season that way.

The lesson last season was you have to attack all 82 games, something the Lightning didn't do. It created a hole it couldn't escape.

It will need a healthy Stamkos. And a healthy Ryan Callahan. It will need better seasons from Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, and more consistency from Alex Killorn. Remember, the talented Drouin is gone.

It remains to be seen what veterans Chris Kunitz and Dan Girardi will bring. Kunitz is a Cup winner, and Girardi brings tons of experience to the defense. The real find could be defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who came over from Montreal in the Drouin trade.

RELATED: Dan Girardi relishes new home, and role, with Lightning.

But it will come down to goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is still only 23 years old and who navigated last season without anyone thinking he wasn't the guy. Vasilevskiy was spectacular at the world championships in May. Ben Bishop is gone. It's Vasilevskiy's net. The Lightning will go as far as he goes.

Yes, there were injuries last season, but there also was a definite lack of urgency at times. Part of Cooper's job will be to make sure that doesn't happen again.

Here comes the Lightning.

The window remains open.

It opens for business next week.

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