Soon after the NHL schedule was released, Lightning coach Jon Cooper, his assistants, general manager Steve Yzerman and team services director Ryan Belec held a strategy session. How best, they mulled, to use the time between road games to get players in an efficient manner from one city to the next, to accommodate practices while allowing for rest and recovery. "Sleep," Cooper said, "is paramount." The calculations were urgent this season because of the league's new division alignments and Tampa Bay's assignment to the eight-team Atlantic Division, the quirkiest — and most unfairly drawn — of the four divisions. It is unfair because the Lightning and Panthers are lumped in with the Bruins, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators, Maple Leafs and Red Wings, a division so spread out, Tampa Bay and Florida must fly past the entire Metropolitan Division to reach their division foes.
The result: The Lightning's average flying distance to division cities is 1,011 miles, second in the league to the Panthers' 1,094 miles, according to travelmath.com.
Compare that with the tightly clustered Metropolitan Division of the Flyers, Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Penguins, Blue Jackets, Capitals and Hurricanes. Philadelphia's average distance between division cities is a league-smallest 207 miles. The Rangers, Islanders and Devils are in such proximity, players can drive to games if they desire.
The Lightning has no such luxury.
Is it unfair?
"I don't know," captain Marty St. Louis said. "Life is unfair."
"I think it's unfair to the owner," Cooper said. "He's the one who has to shell out for the planes, where there are owners who only have to shell out for a bus. To me that's unfair. But it's the price of doing business."
Here is a look at the Lightning's itinerary:
League to the rescue
When the new divisions were announced, the league assured it would help the Lightning as much as possible minimize its travel demands, and Cooper said that was accomplished.
The team plays 12 back-to-back games, compared with 14 for the Flyers. That's not a huge difference, but Tampa Bay goes into Canada only four times, with games nicely clustered. There also is a seven-game homestand in October and a streak of eight of 10 at home in March and April.
"In my opinion, they looked after us as best they could," Cooper said. "They didn't make us go in and out of Canada all the time, so that shortens the load going through customs."
The Lightning will fly 43,102 miles this season, 12th in the 30-team league, according to ontheforecheck.com, but second most in the Eastern Conference behind the Panthers.
"We don't have the easiest travel, that's for sure," St. Louis said. "So, you have to manage the body. It's the old cliche: hydrate a lot, get your sleep. It's what you do away from the rink that is going to put you in as optimal condition as you can."
Stay or go?
For Cooper, the biggest travel question was whether to leave cities immediately after games (favored by former coach Guy Boucher) or stay overnight and fly out the next day (favored by former coach John Tortorella).
It is not a black and white issue, especially when considering a four-game November trip to Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Jose and Anaheim.
"The argument is, 'Okay, if you come home (to Tampa) right after the (Anaheim) game and get home at 6 a.m., or do you stay the night, fly the next day and make it a more realistic day?" Cooper said. "Then you have to balance do we play the next night or have the day off?"
Even with two days off after the Anaheim game, the Lightning will not stay the night so as not to kill the entire next day traveling.
Have you looked at how the Lightning has fared in some of its new division cities? It is not pretty.
Tampa Bay is 1-13-0 with a tie in Detroit, 4-26-3 with six ties in Boston, 11-23-4 in Ottawa, 12-19-4 with a tie in Toronto, 13-21-2 with two ties in Buffalo.
"We've got a tough division," right wing B.J. Crombeen said. "But we've got a good team here. Nobody is happy with how last year went (missing the playoffs), and we've got something to prove. It's good to face good competition. It'll bring the best out of us."
It is easy to say, as many Lightning players did, that all teams have travel burdens, but consider this travel-light stretch for the Rangers from Jan. 19 to March 5: nine home games, "road" games against the Devils and the Islanders at Yankee Stadium, a road game at Philadelphia. The only game in that stretch to which players won't be able to reach by car, bus or train is Feb. 7 in Pittsburgh.
Add the Olympic break from Feb. 9-25 and the Rangers might be the best-rested team in the league.
The Lightning in that stretch? Four home games and nine road games, three in Canada and five in either the central or mountain time zones.
No one at the Lightning is whining, and, really, players said, why should they?
"For the most part it's going to be pretty even throughout the league," center Nate Thompson said. "Everyone is going through pretty much the same thing."
And it's not like players rough it on the road. Chartered airplanes are tricked out with all first-class seats, and, as Cooper noted, "With the hotels we stay at in this league, there shouldn't be much complaining."
There also is this:
"We get up every day and the sun is shining," Cooper said of living in Florida. "There's no snow on the ground. So, there's give and take all around. I would probably take that to fly the extra hour and a half."
Here is the travel the Lightning faces to cities in its realignment-created division. The average distance is 1,011 miles. Only the Panthers' is longer (1,094).