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A desire to teach; an emphasis on play

New coach John Tortorella wants the Lightning to learn and have fun in the game.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 10, 2001


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Tortorella
TORONTO -- So there was the Lightning after a grueling 60-minute practice at Lakeshore Arena, skating a series of rink-long wind sprints.

It was supposed to be a conditioning drill, but the players turned it into a series of laugh-filled mini-races. Oh, and those games of keep-away going on around the faceoff circles? They were drills designed to increase passing proficiency.

The Lightning was hard at work Tuesday at the same time new coach John Tortorella was reminding everyone it was playing a game.

"He was trying to get us to loosen up and get the guys to stop thinking so much," defenseman Jassen Cullimore said. "He wants us to play the game for fun."

But when the players blew down-low five-on-five coverage, Tortorella stopped practice, went right to the guilty party and pointed the way with his stick and a firm voice. Then he ran the play again. What is that theory? Oh, yeah, practice makes perfect.

"It's part of the communication," Tortorella said. "'It's part of the teaching."

Tortorella has taken over a team like no other he has coached. Not only is it the NHL's youngest, he said it is probably younger than the team he coached in Rochester, N.Y., to the AHL title in 1995-96.

The team also is trying to find its confidence while being beaten down by four wins in 20 games, a non-existent power play and sieve-like down-low defense.

Good thing Tortorella has enough confidence for everyone, especially considering tonight's game at the Air Canada Centre against the Maple Leafs, whom the Lightning hasn't beaten since 1996.

"It stinks being in this situation, with the organization in somewhat of disarray with the coaching change," he said. "But it's an opportunity to learn, and that's how we're looking at it."

The practices, though, are only part of a formula the 42-year-old has been developing. He has watched those he worked with and coached against, and taken the best of it, like from former Sabres general manager John Muckler. Rochester is a Buffalo affiliate, and Tortorella was able to see Muckler motivate by pushing different buttons for different players. As an assistant with the Coyotes, Tortorella watched coach Jim Schoenfeld's compassionate motivation.

"If they know you care, they will push for you," Tortorella said.

And don't forget Lightning general manager Rick Dudley, whom Tortorella assisted when Dudley coached AHL's New Haven.

"He had a work ethic no one is going to match," Tortorella said. "He worked and picked to find tendencies and the right combinations."

One of Tortorella's first moves as Lightning coach was to put Vinny Lecavalier at left wing on Brad Richards' line. He seeks a permanent right wing (Mike Johnson, he said, is not the best fit) but thinks pairing the best friends will provide some juice.

It also provided an opportunity for Brian Holzinger, who has played wing most of the season, to move back to center. "Because that's where I think he belongs," Tortorella said.

Not a bad call. Holzinger scored two goals in Sunday's 7-4 loss to the Blackhawks, his first game back at the position and Tortorella's first as coach.

As for the goaltender rotation, Tortorella said he hasn't thought about how to split the duties between Dan Cloutier and Kevin Weekes, who is out at least seven days with a groin strain.

A surprise move against the Blackhawks was scratching steady veteran right wing Stan Drulia. Tortorella said it was not a signal to Drulia but a way to play rookie forward Kaspars Astashenko, whom the team wants to evaluate.

Whether in a game or at practice, there's no reason the evaluation process can't be fun, right?

"The best camaraderie is in the locker room, in the rink during practice, the pre-game skates," Tortorella said. "Just being around each other breaks down the barriers."

If they find out who is the fastest skater in the process, so much the better.

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