As the Tampa Bay Lightning open camp on the ice today, there was one word circulating throughout the arena at yesterday's media day activities: Expectations.
Considering this is one of the extremely rare occasions where the prognosticators at all levels are looking for big things from the Lightning before the season starts, with the Hockey News and USA Today going so far as to seed them in the Stanley Cup Finals, it shouldn't be a surprise that the subject is on the minds of all concerned. Between a surprising second place finish in the Atlantic Division last season, the breakout of youngsters like Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, the off-season infusion of veterans like Anton Stralman, Brenden Morrow and Brian Boyle and the return to healthy status of stalwarts Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop, it's hard to make a case against the Lightning being better than they were last year.
Slow down a little bit, says the man ultimately responsible for putting this all together, general manager Steve Yzerman:
"I think we have to be realistic and cautious. Until you actually get out on the ice and see how everyone performs together, you don't really know. As far as other people's predictions or what not, we've got to just completely block that out. It's irrelevant, really.''
The players have their own thoughts on the matter:
"I think expectations are a little higher for our team, which is a good thing. Some familiar faces aren't here, and new ones I'm getting to know. It's great to see so many guys decide to come down early and start working out." - Steven Stamkos
"I think you always want to do better than you did last year, personally as well as team-wide. I feel like we have a great group of guys again. Obviously, the playoffs didn't go how we wanted, but I think you always have to aim high and that's got to be our plan this year as well." - Valtteri Filppula
"Going into camp, we're extremely excited and ready to build toward, hopefully, something special. It's coming from the outside, these expectations. We still have to go out on the ice and do it. In the dressing room, we know it's a long season and we have to get better as the season goes on and we have to manage those expectations." - Ryan Callahan
As for the man whose job it will be to focus the players and help them manage those expectations, head coach Jon Cooper is ready to face a challenge that few Lightning coaches have ever had to deal with:
"I guess the one way to manage it is to try to perform to those expectations. I've heard we're a chic pick and I guess if I really look at the big picture, would you rather coach a team that nobody picked, everybody is picking to come last or would you rather coach a team that everybody thinks is going to come in first? I'm not saying that we're picked to come in first but if you balance that out, usually the teams that are picked to finish high, the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins and those teams, they're really good teams with really good players, so you want to take your chances coaching that type of group. The other side of things is, we were picked to come in last in a lot of situations last year but we knew we had some good players on this team. Being picked lower is a lot of motivation but being picked higher can also be used as motivation. Maybe its just reversed and instead of an anger, it's a fear or a hunger or however you want to put it. We've talked about it. We can't help what people write. What we bring to the table is we just have to try and get better from the year before and that's the message 'Okay we were this; let's just be better'. Where better takes us, we don't know. But if we can improve as a team from what we were a year ago, I think that's our path, and we're going in the right direction"