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Lightning start new season looking for a different ending

Largely the same group comes together for training camp, with the same goal and a larger chip.
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) poses for the picture sand video on the first day of training camp with medical and physical testing along with media day at Amalie Arena on September 12, 2019 in Tampa, FL. The Lightning announced their 62-man roster for camp which features 33 forwards, 21 defensemen and eight goaltenders. Also in camp will be 21 players that represented the Lightning in the 2019 Prospects Showcase which took place this past weekend in Nashville. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

TAMPA — This was the longest offseason of Ryan McDonagh’s career.

Thursday marked 149 days since last season ended, and it felt even longer for McDonagh and the rest of the Lightning.

They didn’t necessarily think about last season’s playoff disappointment every one of those days. There was time to relax, time to enjoy family and friends, but none of them had aspired to nearly five months of down time.

Now, it’s time for a new season.

MORE LIGHTNING: What the team said about Brayden Point

Training camp started with physicals, fitness testing and the first team meeting Thursday. The Lightning hit the ice for the first time today at the Ice Sport Forum in Brandon.

“We could sit and pout in the corner, but it’s not going to change anything that happened last year,” Steven Stamkos said, referring to being swept in the playoffs’ first round by the Blue Jackets after an NHL-record-tying 62 regular-season wins.

“I’m hoping guys come in with that extra motivation and a little chip on their shoulder, because I know I will.”

The tone was set at that first team meeting.

The day started with hugs for teammates and staff members. Players cheered each other on in fitness testing.

Then they filed into a large room typically used for media (it’s bigger than the Lightning’s usual meeting spaces) and picked up booklets titled 2019 Lightning Training Camp as coach Jon Cooper took the front of the room.

No sugarcoating, just business.

“A lot of us in that room went through what we did,” McDonagh said. “There’s no denying it. At the same time, you can’t keep dreading on it. A new season is here now, so thankfully we can start focusing on when our next game is, when our next practice is.”

A big part of that meeting was a topic of discussion last year: defense. The Lightning aren’t changing their identity, but they can’t lose track of defense amidst their high pace of play and scoring.

That means fewer and lower-quality scoring chances. That means fewer penalties.

“Those are areas that ended up biting us in the butt at the end of the day. We know that,” general manager Julien BriseBois said. “This has to be a reality. We have to be committed to being better in these areas.”

McDonagh dove right into the habits the team must have that aren’t all about physicality, including staying above your check and not giving away the puck.

“That’s a good message to set right away,” he said.

Sure, the Lightning possess speed, skill and scoring. But adding good defensive habits and discipline adds balance to make them harder to play against.

They talked about doing that last year, but they want to do it this year. Some of the offseason’s additions address that. The Lightning added size on the blue line with a younger but experienced group.

And they broke the mold with a new forward.

MORE LIGHTNING: Lightning start the preseason with a looming question: Are we there yet?

Standing in front of a Lightning backdrop for the first time, free-agent acquisition Pat Maroon joked that he isn’t what anyone is used to seeing in Tampa Bay. At 6 feet 3 and 225 pounds, Maroon is the tallest roster forward by 2 inches and the biggest by 24 pounds.

Maroon said his Blues won the Stanley Cup last year by wearing teams down. His job now is to be physical and a net-front presence, and to open up space.

“Hopefully my big body can bring that here to this organization,” he said.

Maroon knows exactly what it takes to win the Cup. He said he came to the Lightning because they give him a chance to do it again.

That’s what it all comes down to. Last year was great, a record-setting kind of great for the Lightning. But it wasn’t good enough, and they went home without reaching their ultimate goal.

“You can look back and say it was a tremendous season, and no doubt it was,” McDonagh said. “But I think if you asked any of (the players who won individual awards — Nikita Kucherov was league MVP and Andrei Vasilevskiy was voted its top goalie), they’d trade them in. Hopefully this year we can have that success at the end of the season.”

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.

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