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Lightning's new normal: making playoffs

TAMPA — If nothing else Thursday, in his final meeting with his players before they scattered for the summer, Lightning coach Jon Cooper wanted to make sure the organization's new "minimum standard" for success was implanted in their heads.

"The playoffs are the norm now, and how far are we going to advance in the playoffs," Cooper said was the message. "That is where our attitude has to be."

It was a bit of an odd day at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Players cleaned out lockers, happy the team reached the postseason for the first time since 2011 but still kind of shocked they were swept 4-0 in the Eastern Conference first round by the Canadiens.

General manager Steve Yzerman was similarly caught in between. He called the season positive but said the sweep raised new questions for him about what holes he needs to fill over the summer.

Those decisions won't be made, he said, until he sits down next week to brainstorm with Cooper.

"I have some thoughts, but I prefer to keep those to myself for the time being," Yzerman said. "But we do have to improve in certain areas and change our team a little bit."

Some of what Yzerman needs to address is obvious.

The team needs a top-four defenseman to take pressure off Matt Carle and Radko Gudas, who were inconsistent in that role. It probably needs a backup goalie after Anders Lindback's mediocre season and meltdown in Game 4 against Montreal.

And it needs a setup player for captain Steven Stamkos, who lost one of the best when Marty St. Louis was traded in March. The hope is Jonathan Drouin, the No. 3 overall pick of the 2013 draft who this season tore up the junior Quebec league for Halifax, is ready to step in.

More broadly, though, Cooper and Yzerman said the team needs to get bigger and stronger, which would help the overall team defense that, without No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop, was exposed by the Canadiens.

"We play hard, but sometimes we're not as hard to play against as we need to be," Cooper said. "We had a little more flash and dash in our game than grind-it-out. We'll see if we can get a little bigger and stronger as a team and still keep our core guys together."

Yzerman said it is too early to say if it is more likely he will try to add through trade or free agency. Either way, Stamkos said, "If I had to make an educated guess, the management, staff and ownership is going to do everything possible to better our team."

That's a team that, with 10 rookies and an average age of 26.5, was the youngest in the playoffs.

But that also means it has great potential.

"We can't be a one-hit wonder," Cooper said. "We have to make the playoffs next year. It's inexcusable if we don't, and then you have to progress (if they do)."

"We have the pieces here," said center Tyler Johnson, a rookie of the year finalist with teammate Ondrej Palat. "We want to make it a tradition of going to the playoffs every year. That's our goal; that's what we need to do. I think we're on our way."

Sounds as if he got the message.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@tampabay.com.

Lightning's new normal: making playoffs 04/24/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 25, 2014 12:01am]
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