Biggest question facing the Lightning a season ago: Does this one include a trip to the NHL playoffs?
Tampa Bay players offered similar answers during training camp: yes, yes, and you better believe it. They delivered, too, taking the Philadelphia Flyers six games before bowing out of the franchise's first post-season appearance.
This season, the big question gets bigger.
"Now that we've made the playoffs, it's a different attitude," said center Brian Bradley, the only scoring leader Tampa Bay has known in four seasons. "Last year we were just trying to get in. Now, I don't think it will be a success unless we get in and get by the first round."
Is it possible? Before opening its season Oct. 5 at Pittsburgh and moving into the Ice Palace in Tampa about two weeks later, the Lightning will train in Lakeland and plays six preseason games.
Here are 10 questions that may be answered after training camp opens Thursday as Tampa Bay works to provide the response fans want to hear:
1. How will the Lightning's nouveau riche _ namely Bradley, leading goals-scorer Alexander Selivanov and coach Terry Crisp _ react to their newfound wealth?
Crisp comes to camp with the security of a new three-year contract, which makes one wonder whether his unmitigated enthusiasm of seasons past will follow in Years 5, 6, and 7. Unburdened by employment worries, Crisp should looking only toward the future. As for Bradley and Selivanov, who signed for big bucks over the summer, the Lightning can only hope to see preseason signs that extra cash will convert to extra points.
2. Is general manager Phil Esposito done dealing?
Trader Phil acquired a few name players in the off-season, notably goal-scoring great Dino Ciccarelli from Detroit and defensemen Jay Wells and Craig Wolanin. Gone from last season's playoff roster: Petr Klima, John Tucker, Michel Petit, Jeff Reese and Chris LiPuma. Besides Bradley, whose name is forever dangled, the biggest rumor of the off-season is that wing Chris Gratton is on the blocks. Gratton's camp could either quiet or amplify the whispers. Dealing goalie Daren Puppa, who becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season, is a possibility.
3. Will center Daymond Langkow make the team?
This ought to be a gimme. The Lightning's first-round draft choice last year probably should have spent all of last season in the NHL, but for whatever reason ("I don't want a player making $600,000 sitting on the bench," Esposito said in October. "I'm the boss.") that didn't happen. If Crisp had his way, it might have. Instead Langkow played four games for Tampa Bay, then was returned to his junior team. He was bored there, and at times it showed. Still, a job is Langkow's for the having. Best-case scenario: He becomes an immediate top-line player. Worst case: The kid comes in cocky and is sent to the American Hockey League to keep his 'tude in check.
4. Could Langkow's presence force Gratton to the wing?
Assuming Langkow earns his place, the Lightning will have five in the middle: Langkow, Gratton, Bradley, Aaron Gavey and John Cullen. Barring a trade, Bradley is on a top line. Cullen was rewarded with another one-year contract, so the former All-Star seems to have a spot. Langkow, more of a playmaker than Gratton, is a natural center. Gratton has played wing before ("There," Crisp said when the idea was first proposed, "he won't have to make all the plays"), but doesn't seem to like it. Another possibility: Crisp tries Gavey, a rookie with a great attitude last season, on the wing.
5. Will defenseman Roman Hamrlik, the NHL's top draft choice in 1992, check in as a happy camper?
The All-Star flashed future Norris Trophy potential in his fourth year, but succumbed to late-season moodiness. And he picked the wrong time, pouting over ice time and his relationship with Crisp early in the playoffs. Hamrlik liked playing for Wayne Cashman, but Tampa Bay's associate coach packed his bags for San Jose after Crisp decided against having him back. If Hamrlik remains down, the club could be headed on a road to ruin before the season starts. Otherwise, it could be taking the playoff path.
6. How will Klima's departure be felt?
Klima offered the first hint he would leave the morning after last season ended: "I don't know if they're going to make any big changes or not," he said, tucking his nameplate into a bag as he cleaned out his locker. "If they do, I don't know if I'm going to be one, or what. Who knows?" Crisp for one, Esposito another. They decided they had to deal Klima and got a draft pick from Los Angeles for him. Gone: a 22-goal scorer with a minus-25 plus-minus rating, a player whose M.O. was to show up some nights but not others. Fellow Czech Hamrlik no longer will be directly influenced by Klima, which could be a blessing.
7. Even if Vezina Trophy finalist Puppa is back without a bum back, might new backup Corey Schwab press for playing time?
Puppa missed four games down the stretch and two in the playoffs with lower-back woes, but without him Tampa Bay never would have made it to the post-season. If the Lightning returns to the playoffs, its goalie best come to camp with a back strong enough to carry the club. As for Schwab, Esposito said this of the goaltending situation shortly after getting him from New Jersey: "It's not anymore that it's a set, sure thing. Sure, Daren's a Vezina finalist. He's a hell of a goalie. But that doesn't mean it's wrapped up." But Schwab must play with perfection to unseat Puppa, the poobah as long as he is around these parts.
8. With whom will Ciccarelli play?
Rest assured, Crisp wants the NHL's No. 12 all-time goal scorer on a line that will produce. Just how that will be done, and which wing might see less ice time because of it, remains to be seen.
9. Did wing Jason Wiemer learn his lesson?
Wiemer had a miserable camp last season, and it cost: no points and 11 non-injury scratches in his first 23 games. But Wiemer clicked with Gratton and Brian Bellows later, salvaging his sophomore season with a hat trick vs. San Jose in March and five points in his last 12 games. Safe bet: Wiemer will be in better shape than a year ago.
10. Besides Langkow, which youngsters can win a job?
Defenseman Mario Larocque is not expected to make the jump from juniors, and there really is not much roster room. But someone could make his case in camp, including: unsigned Brantt Myhres, the bad-boy wing suspended last preseason before breaking an ankle; Alan Egeland and Jeff Toms, who made NHL debuts last season; fellow minor-league forward Corey Spring; Canadian national team member David Matsos, signed as a free agent; forward Colin Cloutier, up from juniors; defenseman Drew Bannister, who still must prove himself; and defenseman Mike McBain, last year's second-round pick. Goalies Derek Wilkinson and Tyler Moss will get looks, but with Schwab around both should start in the minors.