TAMPA — To emphasize the message he sent to players at a final meeting on Monday, Lightning coach Jon Cooper held out his hand and spread his fingers.
"Just count on your hand the amount of months before we play another meaningful game. It's unacceptable," Cooper said at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. "You sit there and you really count it out: May, June, July, August, September. That's a long time, and something nobody in that room should ever accept."
It was on that note, and after the usual cleaning out of lockers, Cooper sent the Lightning — out of the playoffs for a second straight season and fifth time in six years — into what surely will seem like an endless summer.
What will they find when they return for September training camp? Neither Cooper nor general manager Steve Yzerman was specific.
But Yzerman did say, "The reality is our group will change, how dramatically I'm not prepared to say yet, but we'll explore options as far as improvement in the areas we need to address."
With Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback set in net, and the team third in the league with 147 goals, defense will be the focus for upgrade. But with this summer's free agent list on the thin side, Yzerman said additions likely would come via trade.
"It's hard to do, but we'll certainly explore it," he said.
There could be tweaks to the coaching staff.
Yzerman has said his "intention" is to keep goaltenders coach Frantz Jean, and Jean has said he sees no reason he won't be back. But Yzerman also indicated after Cooper was hired that assistants Steve Thomas and Dan Lacroix would be retained. He did not repeat that Monday, nor did he address the idea he floated last month about adding a veteran NHL assistant.
Yzerman was equally non-committal about perhaps using the two compliance buyouts available under the new collective bargaining agreement to create salary cap space. There has been speculation oft-injured left wing Ryan Malone, who has two years left on a contract that carries a $4.5 million cap hit, could be a candidate.
"We'll spend the next month figuring out our plan," Yzerman said. "I'm not really concerned with where we are with the cap. It's not going to be an issue for us as far as what we want to do."
"There's going to be changes, no doubt," right wing Marty St. Louis said. "Nothing is going to surprise me in terms of changes because our GM wants to win and he knows, and we all know, this is not good enough what has gone on the last couple of years."
If there is an advantage it's that Cooper, hired March 25, has been on the job 15 games.
Much of what he has done in terms of allocating personnel on the ice has been trial and error, he has said, so he can get a feel for the players' strengths, weaknesses and personalities.
"Part of evaluating, too, is seeing how guys handle adversity, which we went through a little bit if you count our won-loss record," said Cooper, who was 4-8-3. "Fifteen games was a great evaluation. It just makes us that farther ahead for next season."
There also is the possibility of getting an impact player with the No. 3 pick in the June draft.
And change can be good, center Steven Stamkos said.
"But it's still going to fall on the core guys," he added. "The ownership, management, coaching staff, there's been an element of patience that, frankly, I know there won't be next year. There's no more time to talk about what-ifs, we need this, we need that. It's up to us next year and I'm definitely part of that group."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]