Sunday, February 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

With camp opening, Cooper begins to mold Lightning

TAMPA — Forgive Jon Cooper the use of a cliche. But when it comes to the opening of training camp, the Lightning coach said he will be "a little bit like a kid in a candy store."

"Honestly, it can't come fast enough," he added. "You want to walk in and see what you've got."

What Cooper has most of all at the camp that opens today at the Tampa Bay Times Forum is a chance to revamp the roster.

The Lightning wants to get younger and quicker.

General manager Steve Yzerman always has said that in a salary cap world the best way to do that is to promote from within. The sense is the organization now has the depth to do it.

That is why perhaps nine players from last season's AHL Syracuse squad will compete for up to four openings among the top 12 forward positions.

Add Jonathan Drouin, the draft's No. 3 overall pick, and Geoff Walker, who played last season for AHL Lake Erie and was signed as a free agent, and that's 11 players in what should be a cauldron of competition.

How many forward spots are available overall? Tough to say because Cooper has not said how many he will carry beyond the top 12. And Drouin might have a spot as he can play nine games before the Lightning must decide whether to send him back to juniors.

Whatever the numbers, the competition "is going to be huge," said center Tyler Johnson, who led the AHL last season with 37 goals for Syracuse. "We all want to get a place on this team and there's not enough spots for everybody, so it's going to be a battle and it's going to be tough."

"We're just hungry for spots," said right wing Brett Connolly, the No. 6 overall draft pick of 2010 who had 31 goals last season for Syracuse. "We all have the same mind-set."

Things should be more settled on defense with the only likely addition being Syracuse's Mark Barberio, who would be a tantalizing target if put on waivers to return him to the Crunch.

But that doesn't mean the competition at forward won't have a trickle-down effect among all players, even those whose jobs are secure.

"Absolutely," center Nate Thompson said. "Whenever you have competition it pushes you because you see the young guys coming up and you want to solidify yourself.

"You can look at it as competition throughout the roster," he added. "Guys want to earn jobs. Guys want bigger roles. Guys want to become more impact players. It's good for everybody."

But especially for Cooper, who enters his first full NHL season after taking over in late March when Guy Boucher was fired.

"My message to the guys coming in, the rookies, is relax," Cooper said. "You have a chance, but we want you to put your best foot forward. We don't want to have excited energy. We want calm, focused, driven players."

And some veterans to look over their shoulders.

"It's unacceptable where we're at," Cooper said of last season's 28th place finish. "As an organization we're going to do everything in our power to make sure that's the last time we're in that position in the standings.

"It's not a threat, but that's where we're at."

All on: Sun Sports announced it will carry 77 Lightning games this season. With NBC Sports Network airing three and Ch. 44 two, all 82 games will be televised.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]

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