TAMPA — Rick Tocchet's first practice as interim Lightning coach was a picture of intensity.
The very structured, high-energy, 45-minute session had some players gasping for air. But the mood also appeared to be lighter, with players smiling during breaks and responding with their skates. Rookie Steven Stamkos "was flying," Tocchet said.
Tocchet, 44, a first-time head coach, said it's up-tempo practices such as this that he hopes energize the Lightning and help it find the consistency it hasn't shown in going 5-7-4 in the season's first 16 games, a start that resulted in Friday's firing of coach Barry Melrose.
Tocchet pledged the Lightning will have shorter shifts (30 to 40 seconds), attack the net and give up fewer shots than its league-worst average of 35 per game, starting with his debut today against the Hurricanes.
Lightning players, who shared the blame for management's early season shakeup, said the onus is on them now to turn the season around. And a couple of them said they believe Tocchet could become a big part of it.
"I think guys are really going to respond well to (Tocchet)," said goaltender Olie Kolzig, a former teammate of Tocchet's with the Capitals. "(He's) a straightforward guy, a lot of structure. The year I played with (Tocchet), he was just a fierce competitor. I think you'll see some of that in his coaching style."
Tocchet was known as a gritty, hard-nosed player in his 18 years in the NHL, racking up more than 400 goals and 2,500 penalty minutes. Even though he'll take lessons from coaches he played with or worked for (Scotty Bowman, Mike Keenan, Wayne Gretzky), Tocchet said he'll have his own style.
And he's not worried about his interim status. "As long as you're successful, everything takes care of itself," he said.
"(Hall of Fame defenseman) Paul Coffey left me a message: 'Make sure you do what you believe in. Don't compromise,' " Tocchet said. "I'm a pretty easy-going guy, a fair guy, but I believe in a certain way to play."
Several on-ice changes likely will be made under Tocchet, starting with his emphasis on shorter shifts, which he believes will "increase the energy level in some players" and help them "forecheck with a vengeance."
"To play my style, you're going to have to go 30 seconds, 40 seconds," Tocchet said. "You're not playing minute shifts on this team. If you do, you won't play."
Marty St. Louis said that though it's true the team hasn't been on the same page consistently this season, "we have to control the things we can control, and first and foremost is work ethic, desperation."
"We're all responsible with what's gone on," St. Louis said. "We have to look at ourselves in the mirror. Ask yourself if you're doing enough. I don't think a lot of guys can say that right now."
Tocchet said it'll take a collective effort to decrease the amount of shots the Lightning is giving up a game.
"We can't constantly have 40 shots against us every night," Tocchet said. "That doesn't fall only on the defensemen. I'm not blaming the forwards. Collectively, it begins with the forecheck intensity and in the neutral zone."
Tocchet said every player will have to earn his playing time but that the coaches have to figure out how to get top draft pick Stamkos more action. Stamkos has played fewer than 11 minutes in three of the past four games.
"Obviously, we've got to figure out a way to get (him) involved and see if he can play at this level. He's going to get his chance," Tocchet said.
Kolzig said the coaching change is a chance for the team to play with "a little guilt" and spark a turnaround. He saw such a thing last year with Washington, when Bruce Boudreau took over the struggling Capitals early in the season after Glen Hanlon was fired and led them to the Southeast Division title.
"We're in a lot better shape at this point in the year than we were last year with Washington," Kolzig said. "I see a lot of similarities as far as talent goes. If we all just play with a little bit of guilt and realize we are all underachieving … everybody needs to improve their game. With a little bit of structure and accountability, I see us really responding well."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]s.com.