TNT’s Rick Tocchet presents his take on Lightning

Tampa — After winning back-to-back Stanley Cups and making it to three consecutive Finals, the Lightning have had more nationally televised games, from their season opener to last season’s outdoor game in Nashville.

On Friday, the Lightning’s 8 p.m. game against the Blues will be the second half of TNT’s Thanksgiving Showdown broadcast.

Before the game, we caught up with TNT studio analyst Rick Tocchet, an 18-year veteran as a player and former head coach, including two seasons with the Lightning (2008-10), for his Lightning Team of the Year. (Answers have been edited for clarity and length.)

Rick Tocchet, currently TNT Studio Analyst, speaks during his induction ceremony to the Philadelphia Flyers Hall of Fame in 2021.
Rick Tocchet, currently TNT Studio Analyst, speaks during his induction ceremony to the Philadelphia Flyers Hall of Fame in 2021. [ MATT SLOCUM | AP ]

We’re about a quarter of the way into the regular season. What have you seen of lightning so far?

With success, sometimes in a (salary) roof world you’ll get a hole in the armour. They’ve been the franchise’s best in the last five, six years in wins, and two cups in a row. And when it comes to the big world, you have really good players that I think lose major pieces every year and eventually they’ll recover a little bit. What I’m seeing for this team, it’s been discovered a little bit this year.

They’re a little inconsistent because they’ve had to stick men in other roles and it will take time. The only thing I see is that there isn’t a lot of panic in the heart of the players – points (Braiden), (Steven) Stamkos, (Nikita) Kucherov and (Victor) Hedman – you don’t see any panic in these guys even after a loss. It comes from their coach. This is what I marvel at.

They know it’s like, “Hey, we’re continuing to do the right things, hopefully we’ll develop some of these guys in different locations, some guys get more ice time than they did in the past, and we’ll be okay in the end.” That’s what I see now.

Andrei Vasilevskiy is a solid player in the net, but the Lightning have to be careful not to tire him out during the regular season, so he's fresh into the playoff run.
Andrei Vasilevskiy is a solid player in the net, but the Lightning have to be careful not to tire him out during the regular season, so he’s fresh into the playoff run. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

You mentioned this spin. Are there any glaring surprises that you saw from this group in terms of personnel, good or bad?

It’s not blatant, but in the last six, that’s how you win and lose cups, right? Star players obviously do that, but I think if you ask the Lightning players, what’s the difference and they’ll say the bottom six. And I think that’s the only thing they’re trying to develop.

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Can they normally develop these bottom six men? Could they be guys who can change the momentum of the game, whether it’s a big hit, time of possession or a goal? This is it.

I keep a good eye on (goalkeeper Andrei) Vasilevsky. He played a lot of hockey. Is he tired? I don’t know about the interior, so I watch it a lot at the beginning of the year to see where it is, so it’s fresh by the stretch when they really need it.

The burnout factor was a common narrative with this team. What do you look for in evaluating it?

It’s hard to keep doing the right things and doing them over and over again. There will be times when Tampa will lose a lead and in the past, they will be able to secure it. I don’t know if it’s fatigue or focus. I know (coach John Cooper) has a hand in these things.

Sometimes uncharacteristic things will happen. They’ve played a lot of hockey and it’s hard to keep pushing your best players every day to do the right thing. I’ve seen them blow some threads or let a team fall back into the game where that hasn’t happened in the past.

Left Wing Cole Koepke is among the new faces in the Lightning lineup this season.
Left Wing Cole Koepke is among the new faces in the Lightning lineup this season. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

At this point, what is the biggest hurdle for the Lightning to get back to the Stanley Cup Final?

It’s the Tampa Bay Lightning, and they’ve also gone through this transition every year where they’ve lost people. And that’s a big part of it. This is difficult when you have to constantly reload. One year, it might be three or four men, one year it might be two. But they re-download every year.

I think the hardest part for a coach, and Cooper has done such a masterful job of it, is keeping things fresh. You can’t always preach the same thing. Repetition Sometimes, I don’t want to use the word boring, but you need to bring up new things. I think Coop is really good at that.

Nikita Kucherov celebrates with a goal against Carolina on November 3 in Tampa.
Nikita Kucherov celebrates with a goal against Carolina on November 3 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

How would you describe right winger Nikita Kucherov’s game in one or two words?

pressure player. When the heat comes on, that’s when it arrives. I like those types of guys. To me, when it’s hot, the plays he makes under pressure are just world class plays. 7s game, overtime. He trailed in the Series and Game 3, he ended up with four points. This is how I measure those types of players.

I don’t discount every game, but sometimes I really don’t care that he’s not in his game on a (random) Tuesday night when you’re playing a lower opponent. And I get it sometimes. When you’re a stressed player who’s always putting pressure on you, it’s not like you’re having the night off, but he just needs to breathe a little. It’s just that the higher the pressure, the better he plays.

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