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Cooper studies, waits to mold Lightning

TAMPA — For Lightning coach Jon Cooper, his first month on the job has been almost exclusively about getting acquainted with the players — their personalities, how they perform in certain situations, what roles suit them best.

"A great education," he called it.

But as far as installing his system — the technical aspect of how he wants the team to play — that will have to wait.

The problem: a lack of practice time caused by a compressed, lockout-shortened schedule.

By the end of its season Saturday, Tampa Bay will have played 15 games, including three sets of back-to-backs, in Cooper's 31 days on the job. With travel days and off days for players to rest and recuperate, it will have practiced only eight days.

"Think about next year," Cooper said. "By the time the first week of training camp is over, we'll have more practice days than we've had the whole month I've been here."

Not quite, but you get the idea.

"You can only look at so much video," Cooper added. "You have to get on the ice and work with the guys. We're not reinventing the wheel or anything like that. But it's getting them to play consistently the right way, the way we want day in and day out. There's a lot that comes into that. There's just not enough time."

To be fair, every team this season has dealt with a lack of practice time. It is more acute, though, for a team integrating a coach with zero NHL experience who held one practice before his March 29 debut.

Cooper has fiddled with line combinations and the personnel on special teams. He moved captain Vinny Lecavalier to the side of the net on the power play to give him more play-making opportunities.

There have been some technical changes, too, such as eliminating the Guy Boucher strategy of sending two defensemen after puck carriers in the defensive zone. Players also have more freedom to improvise in the offensive zone.

"He's made subtle changes without overhauling everything," right wing B.J. Crombeen said. "He's kept it real simple."

That's because Cooper, 3-6-3 since taking over, is more interested right now in assessing his players.

"I want to see what guys can do," Cooper said. "I want to see what their talents are, what they can excel at, what they struggle at, and move on from there. It's all a big evaluation process."

That process ends with three games in four days: Wednesday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum against the Maple Leafs, Thursday in Boston and Saturday in the season finale at home against the Panthers.

The team's last practice — only its sixth this month — is today at the Times Forum.

"It's no secret, how you get better is how you practice," Lecavalier said. "Obviously, we couldn't do that this year."

"Even for next year," Cooper said, "it will be Thanksgiving, Christmas before you get your team going on all cylinders. It just takes time. But it will be nice to have training camp to work with the guys before getting behind the bench."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@tampabay.com.

Cooper studies, waits to mold Lightning 04/22/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 12:00am]
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