BRANDON — Though Thursday was the Lightning’s first official practice of training camp, for most players, preparation for this season began several weeks ago.
Following last season’s first-round playoff exit, the Lightning had something they hadn’t had in years: lots of time off. It allowed players time to recover physically and mentally, and to jump earlier into training for this season.
For the past month, they have spent their mornings at TGH Ice Plex for informal team skates. Following Thursday’s practice, coach Jon Cooper said it was noticeable that players had been working on their own on the ice for weeks.
“There’s no question,” Cooper said. “This is camp No. 11 for me (as Lightning coach), and I’ve never seen this many players back this early for camp. So maybe (it’s) because we had a longer layoff than we’ve had in the past four years or whatever, but guys were eager to get back.
“To be honest, they could probably play a game right now. That’s how they were flying out there (Thursday).”
The practice was faster-paced than a typical opening workout. It was an indication of the group’s hunger after seeing its postseason end early with the loss to the Maple Leafs.
“We’ve had a lot of, basically, our full squad for about a month, I’d say now,” center Nick Paul said. “So, we’re feeling good. Those practices out there weren’t new to us. We’ve been doing it for a while. The team is ready to work, and it’s kind of that atmosphere where everyone wants to get better. Everyone’s pushing each other, and we’re striving for greatness.
“After every practice, we run through, like, five, six drills, and then we do a scrimmage, and then we do a bag skate. So, we’ve been doing 15-minute periods, so the boys are ready. We’re hungry.”
The skates included many of the team’s newcomers, giving them additional time to adjust to new teammates. Some of the recently departed players, including forwards Alex Killorn and Pat Maroon, also dropped in to skate a few times.
“I think at some point they’re fired up to have a little more direction in practice, because they’ve been running all their drills,” Cooper said. “So I think that was probably getting a little long in the tooth for them. But as you’d expect in a first day, everybody’s excited.”
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The precamp skates delivered a message to the newcomers that the work starts early.
“It bodes well for our team this year, but I think it also sends a great message to those young players,” general manager Julien BriseBois said. “If you want to become as great of a hockey player as Steven Stamkos or Nikita Kucherov or Andrei Vasilevskiy or Victor (Hedman) — name a player — you have to put in the work.
“Those guys weren’t born that way. They put in a lot of work to become the great players they are today, and they continue to work at it, and that’s why they continued to perform at such a high level.”
Prospects, who shared the facility with the veterans during last week’s rookie showcase practice, took notice.
“It’s one of the things Cooper talked about in the (first camp) meeting (Wednesday), that those guys are the ones who really set the standard here,” forward prospect Lucas Edmonds said. “So, as a younger player coming in, you always looked up to those kinds of players. And to be alongside them, that is a really, really cool experience.
“I think it’s really motivating to see the kind of work those guys who have played in the league for so long and won two Cups already, to see them still that motivated for another season, it really, really helps you kind of push through every day.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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