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Playoff-starved Lightning look for improved defence to make a big difference this season

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, right, instructs his team during NHL hockey camp Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, in Tampa, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Brian Blanco

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Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, right, instructs his team during NHL hockey camp Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, in Tampa, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Brian Blanco

TAMPA, Fla. - Jon Cooper's message to the Tampa Bay Lightning is simple. If you hope to make the playoffs, play better defence.

No team in the NHL allowed more goals over the past two seasons than the 425 yielded by the Lightning, who dismissed former coach Guy Boucher and hired Cooper as his replacement last March.

Cooper went 4-8-3 over the final 15 games of last season and is working on changing the mind-set of a team that's thrived on the scoring prowess of young Steven Stamkos and two holdovers from Tampa Bay's only Stanley Cup championship, Martin St. Louis and the now departed Vincent Lecavalier.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to open up the stat pack and see," Cooper said. "We are the only team to give up more than 400 goals the past two seasons, and we have to shore that up."

With an eye on building for long-term success, general manager Steve Yzerman bought out the contract of Lecavalier this off-season.

The 38-year-old St. Louis and Stamkos remain, though, are finishing one-two in the NHL scoring race during last season's abbreviated 48-game schedule.

St. Louis had 17 goals and a league-leading 43 assists for 60 points. Stamkos was second with 57 points, including 29 goals, and says it's important that everyone buy in to what Cooper is preaching.

"Marty and I finished one-two in scoring last year," the 23-year-old Stamkos said. "It's great, but we don't make the playoffs."

With St. Louis and Lecavalier key roles, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004. The team has missed the playoffs five of the past six seasons.

One of the reasons has been inconsistent goaltending, a trend that Cooper and Yzerman hopes will end with 6-foot-7 Ben Bishop and 6-6 Anders Lindback handling the duties this season.

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Five things to know about the Lightning, which has been in the playoffs just three times in the decade following their Stanley Cup title.

GOODBYE CAP: The first overall pick in the 1998 NHL draft, Lecavlier spent the first 14 seasons of his career with the Lightning—most them as team captain. Buying out his contract will free $54 million in salary cap space over the next seven years. The team will miss the former goal scoring champion's leadership and experience. The talented forward, who signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Flyers, has 874 career points, including 383 goals and 491 assists.

ALL IN: Cooper is focused on improving all aspects of the defence. One of the keys figures to be the development of Bishop and Lindback, young prospects acquired through trades. Bishop appeared in nine games, going 3-4-1 with a 2.65 goals against average last season after being obtained from Ottawa in a trade last April. This is Lindback's second season in Tampa Bay since being acquired from Nashville in June 2012. He appeared in 24 games, going 10-10-1 with a 2.90 goals against average a year ago. Cooper knows, however, the team also have to play better in front of them. "You can't rely on your goaltender to make every single save," the coach said.

EARLY TEST: Tampa Bay plays seven of its first 10 games at home, but the bad is the season starts with road trips to defending Eastern Conference champion Boston, Stanley Cup champion Chicago and Buffalo. The extended homestand that follows also features dates against Bruins, Blackhawks and Sabres, as well as tough matchups against Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

NEW NEIGHBORHOOD: The realigned NHL has the Lightning in the Atlantic Division, along with Boston, Detroit, Montreal Toronto, Buffalo, Ottawa and Florida. That means a lot more travel than usual, considering the intrastate rival Panthers are the only division opponent situated within a two-hour flight.

WHAT'S LEFT: At 37, St. Louis won the Art Ross Trophy for the second time, becoming the oldest player to receive the award. He's beginning his 13th season with the Lightning, and the natural question is how much does he have left at 38. The Lightning is counting on the answer being plenty.

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