Lightning coach Jon Cooper reflects on Tampa Bay today: ‘We’re still relevant’ – The Athletic

OTTAWA — Jon Cooper is rarely at a loss for words.

The outgoing, loquacious coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning answers most questions from reporters with a level of depth and honesty that exceeds his peers. And inside an empty room across the hallway from the visiting coach’s office at Canadian Tire Centre, Cooper was in his usual, talkative mood.

Sitting on a stool and reflecting on the evolution of his team over the past decade, Cooper smoothly laid out the progression of the Lightning.

“I’ve watched us go from the new kids on the block to the kids that couldn’t get it done to the kids that can’t be stopped,” Cooper said.

But when asked what label he would affix to the current edition of the Lightning, Cooper was suddenly at a loss for words.

“That’s a good question,” he said.

As he was contemplating his answer, Cooper pulled up a second chair and stretched out his legs onto it. He took nearly 10 seconds to formulate a response before finally saying, “Maybe now, we’re the kids that don’t want anybody to forget about them.”

To many observers, the Lightning are an afterthought, a collection of older, Hall of Fame-bound superstars who are slowly starting their descent from their perch atop the league. When you hear a list of elite teams and Stanley Cup contenders, the Lightning — who used to lead this conversation 12 months ago — are often omitted. Last season’s first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs has managed to overshadow the three consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Final that preceded it.

And Cooper believes he and his players can use that as motivation.

“When people think of us as afterthoughts, there is a little ‘F you’ in the guys to say: ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. We’re still relevant,’” Cooper said. “So yes, for sure, it’s useful.”

In his 12th season behind the bench in Tampa, Cooper is constantly looking for new ways to push his team’s buttons. He believes his personality has changed dramatically during his tenure. During this conversation, Cooper is mellow and relaxed despite his club dropping a 4-2 decision in Columbus 18 hours earlier. Cooper said his mood a few years ago would have been radically different if his team was coming off a loss.

“Back then, (after) every win I was on the top of the roller coaster, and (after) every loss, I was flying off the tracks. And today, the way I react to things emotionally is much different,” Cooper said. “I’m much more big picture today. I was more narrow-minded back then.”

Then Cooper concedes his new mindset might have altered the ending to his first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, when his team squandered a 2-1 series lead before falling in six games to Chicago.

“Who knows? Maybe the Jon Cooper of today could have coached the 2015 team to two more wins in the Stanley Cup,” he says.

Jon Cooper hoists the Stanley Cup after defeating the Montreal Canadiens in the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. (Scott Audette / NHLI via Getty Images)

Cooper eventually got his two championship rings after consecutive Stanley Cup victories in 2020 and 2021. He’s closing in on the 500-win plateau, a mark he should easily reach this season, considering he is sitting at 485 wins. When he accomplishes that feat, Cooper will join Al Arbour as the only head coaches in the expansion era (since 1967) to win 500 games and a Stanley Cup for a single franchise.

Arbour was behind the bench for the New York Islanders dynasty that captured four consecutive Stanley Cup titles. And he also garnered a Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach. The coaches of the dynasty era — Arbour, Scotty Bowman in Montreal and Glen Sather in Edmonton — all won the Jack Adams during their tenures. But Cooper, who has coached the closest version to an NHL dynasty in the salary cap era, has never won the award.

He’s been a Jack Adams finalist on two occasions, including in 2018-19 when his Lightning matched a then-NHL record by registering 62 regular-season victories.

“We tied the record for the most wins. When you don’t win it that year, you think, ‘Well, I don’t think I am ever going to win this award,’” Cooper said with a laugh.

Cooper then turned the tables and posed a question to his interviewer.

“Who’s that soap opera actress who was always the runner-up?” Cooper asked.

After half a minute of searching his mind for the answer, it suddenly comes to him.

“Susan Lucci,” Cooper said, clapping his hands together.

Lucci infamously received 19 Daytime Emmy nominations before finally winning the award in 1999 for her work on the soap opera “All My Children.”

Cooper was passed over in 2014 for Patrick Roy, who guided the Avalanche to a surprising turnaround. In 2019, Barry Trotz got the Jack Adams nod ahead of Cooper for his work in reshaping the Islanders in his first season in New York.

“When you look at the winners of those awards, you can’t argue they shouldn’t have won it,” Cooper said. “When I sit back and look, I’m humbled that I was recognized as one of the top three guys.”

The Jack Adams Award — voted on by NHL broadcasters — tends to skew toward coaches like Roy and Trotz who have a dramatic impact in their first season with the team. The only time in the salary cap era that a coach won the award later than his first three seasons with his team was 2005-06, when Lindy Ruff captured the Jack Adams in his eighth year with the Buffalo Sabres.

Much like the team he coaches, Cooper has become an afterthought in this realm. But maybe there is an opening for the voters to change their minds if the Lightning qualify for the playoffs again in 2023-24. They’ve started the season without perennial Vezina Trophy candidate Andrei Vasilevskiy, whom Cooper remains hopeful will return to Tampa’s crease later this month.

This is old hat for Cooper, who has endured substantive injuries to star players on a fairly regular basis throughout his time in Tampa.

“I’ve gone a season without (Steven) Stamkos. A season without Nikita Kucherov. We’ve gone long stretches without Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli. And now we’re playing without Vasy,” Cooper said. “We build a team. They’re massive parts of our team, but if we can’t get along without them, then what are we?”

To outsiders, the Lightning are suddenly vulnerable in the Atlantic Division, and if they manage to secure a seventh consecutive playoff appearance, perhaps some Jack Adams voters will finally be willing to give Cooper his proper recognition. The only time Cooper’s Lightning have missed the postseason was in 2016-17, when they finished with 94 points — missing a playoff spot by a point.

He is firmly at the top of the conversation when it comes to the best head coaches of the salary cap era, yet unsurprisingly, Cooper is not preoccupied with individual hardware.

“I just don’t have the trophy hanging on my mantel, but I do have the ones that are team-oriented. And the ones that are, are why I coach the game, and those are the ones that mean the most to me,” Cooper said. “Winning Jack Adams would be something super cool. But if I retire from this league at some point and don’t have one, I’ll always rest easy because I’ve got a couple of big trophies looking over my shoulder.”

And Cooper has an unwavering belief that his club is still in its window of contention. He thinks part of the reason people are writing his team off is there is a fatigue factor after seeing the Lighting reach the final in three consecutive seasons from 2020 to 2022.

“I think it’s the greatest compliment in the world. It’s like when people didn’t want the New York Yankees to win because they won all the time. Or the L.A. Lakers. And they didn’t want the (New England) Patriots to win because they won all the time. And so it’s the same for us in Tampa. People look at us and say, ‘We don’t want them to win again. They’ve already won,’” Cooper said. “And when people don’t want you to win anymore, that’s a pretty good feeling for us.”

By their standards, the Lightning are off to a fairly pedestrian start this season with a 5-3-3 record. But it’s similar to last season, when the Lightning stumbled out of the gate by winning only seven of their first 14 regular-season contests. They caught fire in the middle of November, winning 21 of their next 28 games, looking every bit like a juggernaut. They fell in a Game 6 loss to Toronto in the first round, but Cooper is adamant his club is talented and motivated enough to reach the conference final again in the spring.

“It’s been a decade where we feel like we should be playing in June. We truly believe that,” Cooper said. “I get that we’ve lost players every single year. I get there is a flavor of the league every year. But to us, we think we’re still the flavor.”

(Top photo: Dave Reginek / NHLI via Getty Images)

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