TAMPA — The second half of the Lightning's two practices in Estero this week was focused on the power play.
But coach Jon Cooper, who has primarily run the unit since he arrived in March 2013, wasn't on the ice. He watched from a booth on top of the stands. Instead, new assistant Todd Richards, 49, directed drills.
Cooper said this is largely why Richards was hired in the offseason, the Lightning hoping he could bring a "fresh look and fresh face" to the power play, which stunningly ranked 28th in the 30-team NHL last season. The entire staff collaborates, but Richards will have a prominent role on the unit, like associate coach Rick Bowness does with penalty kill.
Richards, who built a top-10 power play in Columbus in his final two seasons there as coach (2013-15), won't be re-inventing the system. Captain Steven Stamkos is still set up in the left circle, firing one-timers. The structure remains similar, as is the personnel. But already players are sensing subtle tweaks in strategy, an increased emphasis on a shoot-first mentality, that they hope can be an X-factor in chasing the Stanley Cup. The first trial run will be in tonight's preseason finale against the Predators at Amalie Arena.
"When you have as much skill as we have and see our power play numbers, they're not good enough," wing Alex Killorn said. "It's just a different voice to hear from, and it seems like everyone is organized. Everyone is pretty clear on what we need."
General manager Steve Yzerman said Richards was on his radar after he was fired by Columbus seven games into last season and replaced by former Lightning coach John Tortorella.
On the power play, the Blue Jackets had gone from 26th (15.1 percent conversion) in Richards' first season, 2011-12, to 10th in 2013-14 (19.3 percent) and fifth in 2014-15 (21.7 percent). Richards was hired by the Lightning on June 7, a week after it was eliminated by the Penguins in the Eastern Conference final.
Over the summer, Richards said, he watched clips of every Lightning power play from the second half of last season.
"There were a lot of good things," he said. "I told Jon, 'Despite of where you guys ended up, there were a lot of good clips. There is a foundation there that I think is easier to work with as opposed to coming in and doing something that's completely different.' "
There's Stamkos, one of the game's top scorers, on a unit with Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Anton Stralman and Vladislav Namestnikov. And there's wing Jonathan Drouin, who was a dynamic force in the playoffs, on a second group with Killorn, Victor Hedman, Nikita Nesterov and Brayden Point. Soon, the Lightning hopes, wing Nikita Kucherov will be part of it after the holding-out restricted free agent is under contract.
"You're dealing with super-talented players in the best league in the world," Richards said. "It's giving them some guidelines but also letting them make plays."
Richards loves watching NFL football. More than just rooting for his favorite team, the Vikings, Richards sees a lot of parallels in football and hockey strategy. For example, just like a good running game sets up the pass in football, the threat of a shot opens up passing lanes in a power play. Not shooting enough was the unit's main problem last season, Johnson said.
But it's not just shooting for the sake of shooting. Stralman said the tweaks Richards has brought in involve how the players move the puck, where they take shots from and where they are when shots are taken. Richards said goals aren't the only barometer of success; another is creating momentum.
"I think there's great potential with this group," Richards said.
ROSTER MOVES: Defenseman Luke Witkowski and forward Gabriel Dumont were placed on waivers Friday and will report to AHL Syracuse if they clear at noon today.