Friday, July 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning spent endless summer puzzling out a playoff return

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TAMPA — When the Stanley Cup playoffs began in the spring without his Lightning, owner Jeff Vinik still watched from his Palma Ceia mansion.

It stung.

"It's hard, because you'd say, 'We're better than them,' " Vinik said. "We should have been there.' "

Coach Jon Cooper wanted to figure out why Lightning wasn't. He challenged his staff in a meeting the week after the season ended. It was time for frank self-assessment. What were we missing? Did we do enough?

Then came summer school.

Cooper assigned each member of his staff a playoff series to study; Cooper took two. What could they learn? What did the playoff teams do better?

It wasn't long ago that the rest of the league was playing catchup with the Lightning. Tampa Bay used a stunning blend of speed and skill to reach the Stanley Cup final in 2015, then Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final the next year.

The fall was steep — and humbling.

"I think when I first came in (2013), we kind of changed the make of our team," Cooper said. "We were really fast, we instilled a style of play, and I think we were really good at it.

"And I think other teams started doing the same thing and they got better at it than us. So it's a matter of not reinventing yourself. You keep building on yourself. And that's what we're doing."

So began an endless "look in the mirror" summer for the Lightning. There were behind-the-scenes changes, from revamping diets to the roster. There was also a much-needed, "kick-in-the-butt," mentality flip, which sparked the toughest training camp in years and a belief that next summer could be a short one.

April

When center Tyler Johnson showed up at Tampa's new ASPI Institute, he didn't know what to expect.

He joined 10 other teammates at the 20,000-square-foot applied science facility. Through cutting-edge molecular testing, the institute helps athletes maximize their performance and health.

After struggling with injuries (wrist, leg) the past three years, Johnson, a former All-Star, was open to it. Injuries to captain Steven Stamkos (torn lateral meniscus) and Ryan Callahan (hip) also helped derail Tampa Bay's season.

Johnson stood in front of a green screen and tried several movements, the computers detecting if he had any deficiencies — could he be more flexible, was he compensating with one side of his body. The real breakthrough, however, came when he breathed into a tube and the machine showed that his body wasn't breaking down enough fat.

"It was basically all carbohydrates," he said. "It wasn't good."

Johnson switched to a ketogenic diet, a low-carb, high-fat plan that has him feeling "10 times better." You can see it in how he looks and skates.

"He's a completely different guy," said Mark Lambert, the Lightning's strength and conditioning coach.

The diet is challenging for Johnson, especially cutting pasta and fruits, as well as Gatorade during games and workouts. But Johnson has found substitutes, such as cauliflower crust for pizza and spaghetti squash.

Johnson, who signed a seven-year, $35 million contract extension in July, could use a bounce-back season. His trip to ASPI could go a long way in keeping him on the ice.

"I changed everything," Johnson said. "I changed the way I ate, the way I trained, the way I moved. I think it feels a lot better."

May

Defenseman Victor Hedman couldn't put into words how surreal it was to see 45,000 fans in a Stockholm square in late May, celebrating Sweden's gold medal at the World Championships.

Hedman, along with Lightning teammate Anton Stralman, locked arms with their Swedish teammates as they sang Queen's We Are the Champions.

It was the first time Hedman, an All-Star and Norris Trophy finalist last season, had won anything big. All he could think about was what would it be like if the Lightning had a similar celebration.

"It was a dream come true, one of the best memories of my hockey career," Hedman said of winning the world title. "I want to share that feeling with all you guys here in Tampa and win here."

Hedman was one of seven Lightning players who participated at worlds in Paris and Cologne, Germany, along with Cooper, who coached Canada. All said the experience will help them this season. Brayden Point, coming off a surprising rookie season, might have been one of Canada's best players, gaining confidence while on the "kid line" with the Maple Leafs' Mitch Marner. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, entering his first full season as No. 1, was named goalie of the tournament. Leading scorer Nikita Kucherov said he learned from watching Russian teammates Artemi Panarin (Blue Jackets) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (Capitals), hoping to apply some of their strengths to his game.

Cooper, who began last season on the staff for North America at the World Cup, led Canada to the silver medal. He said that working with different players and other NHL coaches opened his eyes to alternative ways to teach, interact with players and run practices.

"If they had secrets, I don't feel like they hid them," Cooper said. "Everyone was open. When you have those candid conversations with your peers, you can only benefit. I feel I'm a better coach for it."

June/July

General manager Steve Yzerman did more scouting than usual during the summer, spending time watching AHL Syracuse in the Calder Cup playoffs and preparing for the late June draft.

Yzerman also got a few extra looks at defense prospect Mikhail Sergachev, a Canadiens draft pick playing in juniors. He attended three games during the late May Memorial Cup, seeing Sergachev's Windsor beat several Lightning prospects with Erie to win the championship of the junior Canadian League.

"It's very difficult to find players of that caliber," Yzerman said.

Yzerman acquired Sergachev, 19, from Montreal on June 15 in a blockbuster trade involving wing Jonathan Drouin. Yzerman knew the Lightning had to improve defensively, saying a main reason it missed the playoffs was due to the amount of scoring chances it allowed in the first half of the season.

The other defensemen available via trade were older and closer to free agency. The Lightning kicked the tires on top free agent Kevin Shattenkirk, but it never got far. It was already going to feel a salary cap squeeze, and Yzerman believed that by trading Drouin (who shortly after signed a five-year, $33 million deal with Montreal), it would net him the largest return.

Yzerman also added veteran defenseman Dan Girardi (two years, $6 million) and forward Chris Kunitz (one year, $2 million) in free agency July 1. Yzerman thinks the two can make the Lightning better defensively, boost the penalty kill (ranked 13th last season) and provide new voices in the dressing room.

"I think there were teams in the league last year hoping (the Lightning) didn't make the playoffs because they were so dangerous with dynamic talent," Kunitz said. "They can give anyone matchup troubles."

Tampa Bay just had to figure out how to get in.

September

Stamkos said training camp was his toughest in his 10 years in the league.

From Day 1, Cooper told the team it was "game on," setting the tone from the first practice, fast-paced and filled with battle drills.

"Sometimes you need a little kick in the butt," Stamkos said.

The players were ready. Cooper said there was a significant positive difference in the results of their body-fat tests on the eve of camp.

"Guys were hungry," Stralman said. "We have something to prove."

Stralman lamented the Lightning's 2016-17 slow start, which did it in. With a league-high 12 players, along with Cooper, at the September 2016 World Cup, something was off from the get-go. Many missed training camp. Kucherov's contract holdout ended two days before the regular-season opener.

The Lightning went 10-6-1 before Stamkos went down for the season with a torn meniscus and had surgery, but the record was smoke and mirrors. By February, the Lightning had fallen to last in the conference.

"You can't take half of the year off," Stralman said. " I don't think that sunk in to some of our guys and how bad a spot we put ourselves in.

" We learned our lesson."

The coaches also learned from their playoff study sessions. They saw how some teams managed the puck better in their zone, decreasing scoring chances. Coaches used camp drills that focused on quicker support and transition. Noticing Tampa Bay wasn't creating enough shots for the amount of zone time it had, practices emphasized driving to the net and creating traffic.

Johnson said it was easy for players to buy in after the longest summer in most of their careers: "Something I'd rather never do again."

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] [email protected]_JSmith.

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