TAMPA — There were plenty of laughs Thursday at the Lightning's first practice under new coach Jon Cooper. Even when diagramming plays on the white board, Cooper found ways to crack up his players.
There also was serious work on breakouts from the defensive zone and backchecking, but a shootout competition had the players hollering.
"That's life," Cooper said after the 60-minute workout. "If you're not going to laugh, you're wasting it. I'm a big believer in you only live once, you might as well have fun doing it."
And make it intriguing, too. Cooper acknowledged he plans to give players more freedom in the offensive zone.
We're not talking shinny hockey, and in a sense, players will have to earn the privilege. But as center Steven Stamkos said, the structure will be looser than what was allowed by former coach Guy Boucher.
"It isn't like you weren't allowed to make plays with Guy. You still went out there making reads, making plays," Stamkos said. "But here we know what's allowed and what's not, and there's a lot of in-between where you can make a decision on your own. There aren't specific things in your head you're thinking about when you're out there."
"You've got to let guys breathe," Cooper said. "You've got to let them be free down there."
Now, here are the rules:
"We get on either side of those blue lines, you can't turn the puck over," Cooper said. "You have to be men in the corners. You have to be men in front of the net. You can't shy away from those areas. Goals are scored there. Pucks are retrieved there."
For the nine Tampa Bay players Cooper coached in the American Hockey League, the refrain was familiar, as was the quick pace of practice, with lots of skating, side board-to-side board sprints and instructions for two players to swarm an opponent who retrieves a puck chipped out of the Lightning zone.
The shootout competition, which ended with defenseman Victor Hedman pumping his fist after his winning goal and wing Marty St. Louis celebrating with him, created what left wing Cory Conacher said was "a good vibe."
"We worked hard," said Conacher, who last season played for Cooper at AHL Norfolk. "It's weird, though, when you're having fun, you almost tend to work harder. You want to keep that smile on your face and the coach's face."
The hard work really begins in Cooper's NHL debut tonight against the Devils at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Hard work in the defensive zone is key because, as St. Louis said, "the structure that's real important is the structure without the puck. The more structure you have without the puck, you'll have it more."
And that brings us back to how the Lightning might look in the offensive zone.
"I'm not going to go out there and teach Steven Stamkos how to do a one-timer. He's got that one figured out," Cooper said. "I'm not that guy that says this guy has to go here, and Marty, you have to go here.
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"You get full possession of the puck … have at it, boys."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.