For Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, it was an offseason of spoils. • Bishop, 27, walked the red carpet in Las Vegas at the NHL awards ceremony in June as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, given to the league's top goalie. • In August, he was rewarded with a two-year, $4.6 million contract extension. In September, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Rays game and got a sideline pass to see his hometown Rams play the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium. • "It was a lot of fun," he said. • But it was also a summer of toils. Bishop rehabilitated his surgically repaired right wrist, working to feel close to 100 percent as he starts his first season opener tonight against the Panthers at Amalie Arena. • For all that has changed in one year, Bishop, established as a No. 1 goalie, believes he has unfinished business, especially after missing the playoffs due to a dislocated left elbow. • "I think I've still got to prove myself," he said. "I want to be consistent year in and year out. I don't want to be a one-hit wonder. I want to be even better this year."
The Lightning will be happy if Bishop even comes close to what he did last season, setting career highs for wins (37), goals-against average (2.23), save percentage (.924) and shutouts (five) in 63 games. Cooper said no player was more instrumental in the Lightning's stunning turnaround from 14th to third in the Eastern Conference.
And as the Lightning hopes to live up to the large expectations it has this season, it needs a healthy, and steady, Bishop in net.
"We don't think last year was luck or accident," general manager Steve Yzerman said. "We think he's a great goaltender."
Bishop said he doesn't plan to change his approach from last season, when he beat out Anders Lindback for the starting job.
That's especially true with veteran Evgeni Nabokov, a former All-Star with nearly 700 career games, as his new backup. Part of the reason Nabokov was brought in was to mentor Bishop, whose practice habits have improved since this time last year.
"I had to earn (the job) last year," Bishop said. "And I want to earn it again."
There was no epiphany for Bishop last season, nor a switch in his style. Bishop, who played three seasons at the University of Maine and two in the minors before making his NHL debut in 2008, believed it was just a matter of getting his opportunity. He had played in 45 total games for three teams (Blues, Senators and Lightning) his previous five seasons, acquired by Tampa Bay from Ottawa in April 2013.
"He really grabbed the ball and ran with it," goalie coach Frantz Jean said.
Bishop, at 6 feet 7 and 214 pounds, is athletic but plays an efficient game. Not only is he big, but he's technically sound.
"He's a goalie that relies a lot on his size and his positioning," Jean said. "Essentially, he lets the play come to him."
Bishop said one of the main things he learned last year was how to play hurt, which he had to do a lot. Jean estimated that Bishop wasn't 100 percent for three quarters of the season, starting with an ankle injury, then tearing a ligament in his right wrist in January at Edmonton. From then on, Bishop played with a cast on the wrist, which altered his game.
Then Bishop dislocated his left elbow on an awkward landing after he dived for a floating puck April 8, ending his season.
But with Bishop's elbow healthy and his wrist no longer an issue after April surgery, Cooper noticed Bishop playing more confidently in the preseason, especially in handling the puck, one of his strengths.
"I'm hopeful a healthy Ben Bishop plays a lot better than a banged-up Ben Bishop," Cooper said. "And we should be in good shape."
With the Lightning bolstering its blue line in the offseason, bringing in veterans Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison, it hopes Bishop won't have to carry as big a load.
Cooper wants Tampa Bay to be a top-10 defensive team, allowing fewer shots and scoring chances. Either way, Bishop said he would trade any Vezina Trophy nomination or team records for his first taste of the playoffs. It's in the playoffs where elite NHL goaltenders are judged.
"Guys that get to be really recognized throughout the league as an elite player are guys that get the job done in the second half," Jean said. "And last year, because of injuries and all that stuff, he didn't have that opportunity. Hopefully, this year, he'll have that chance."
Contact Joe Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
No team relied on rookies more last season than the Lightning, with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat becoming Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) finalists. While Johnson, Palat & Co. try to avoid a sophomore slump, Tampa Bay also will count on a few other young players.
Jonathan Drouin, left wing
Though a fractured right thumb will keep Drouin, 19, out of tonight's opener against the Panthers, the prized prospect could soon have a big impact on the lineup. What Drouin, the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2013, lacks in size (5 feet 11, 186 pounds), he makes up for with fantastic hands and strong on-ice vision, making him a magician with the puck, associate coach Rick Bowness says. He already is an early Calder candidate.
Nikita Kucherov, right wing
The skilled 21-year old Russian racked up an NHL-high six preseason goals, forming great chemistry with center Vladislav Namestnikov. After an up-and-down rookie season, Kucherov is highly confident, and with opportunities on the power play, he could make a huge jump in scoring (nine goals, nine assists in 52 games last year).
Brett Connolly, right wing
This is a make-or-break year for Connolly, 22, the sixth overall pick in 2010. He has spent most of the past two seasons developing with AHL Syracuse and needs to show an improved two-way game, and better battle level, to go with his natural scoring ability.