TAMPA — Marty St. Louis seemed to have just acquired a migraine when he considered the rebuilding process ahead.
He had been one of the young pieces of the last major phase of Lightning reconstruction, a free agent cast-off from the Flames looking to prove everyone wrong in 2000. He was there when the team learned to win, so well it captured a Stanley Cup four years ago.
Now he's a veteran, a former Hart Trophy winner and one of the remaining pillars of a team set for remodeling after missing the playoffs this season for the first time since 2001-02. And the process, although admittedly needed, doesn't seem so exhilarating this time.
"It's not very comfortable to be with a team that's not going to be in the playoffs," he said. "Every day you're trying to accept it & and help the young guys and move on."
Moving on with the current pieces seems more pleasant a proposition than it did just a week ago, when the Lightning had lost 10 of 11 and was seemingly learning how to lose despite what coach John Tortorella saw as some encouraging play. But a roster he describes as "transitional" beat the Islanders, Bruins and Rangers, the latter two playoff contenders. And it did so in a way that suggests a workable framework is in place.
"We've won three in a row, but we have a ways to go to get back to being real competitive in this league," Tortorella said. "This is the first step. Summertime comes next as far as adding some pieces, and we need to add pieces."
The odd mix of established players and newcomers the Lightning budget has created sets different agendas. Veterans such as St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Dan Boyle want to believe a quick retool puts them back in championship contention in their still-young careers. The unproven have a chance to prove. The mix recently has heartened Boyle.
"It would be very easy to call it a year and not work hard, but I don't think that's the kind of guys we have in this locker room," he said after a 3-1 win at Boston on Thursday.
Last week, Tortorella expressed concern about next season. The reason: losing, like winning, is a learned skill, he said, and the Lightning has had enough "young, impressionable kids" thrust into important positions of great reward or failure to ingrain habits.
Defenseman Mike Lundin said he hoped anyone competitive enough to reach the NHL couldn't become numb to losing but admitted winning makes for a better learning atmosphere.
"You make a mistake, and maybe you have a little more lenience (when winning)," he said. "Mistakes happen when you're losing, and it's like, 'Here we go again. It's going to cost us again. We're going to lose again.'
"You start getting some of those negative thoughts in your head, and you've got to clear them. And I think that can make it a tough run on a younger guy."
But it also can make an opportunity. Michel Ouellet was given a broader role after Brad Richards and Vinny Prospal were traded. And he has responded with seven goals in 10 games since being paired with newly acquired center Jeff Halpern.
"I think the younger players & are fighting hard here, and they have an opportunity to make a place for themselves within the organization," Tortorella said. "(Craig) MacDonald, (Mathieu) Darche, (Junior) Lessard, they know one thing.
"They're going to go out there and play as hard as they can, and they're not even sure what is going on around them."