Rolling Out with 7-11
NHL coaches can be a superstitious lot. A matchup or particular part of a game plan or a new line change that seems to work well will give any coach pause to roll the hot hand. Tampa Bay Lightning coach, Jon Cooper is perhaps, just a little bit off that traditional path.
You see, where every other coach of every other playoff team utilized the standard 12 forwards and 6 defensemen lineups in every game played this post season, Jon Cooper has not. During this playoff year, he has rolled out 11 forwards and 7 defensemen on seven different occasions. The Lightning are now 6-1 in those games.
Nothing Succeeds Like Success
When his Lightning were down in the Detroit series two games to one heading into game four at the Joe in Detroit, Cooper tried the 7-11 lineup. There was, probably at the very least, mild trepidation on his part. If it doesn’t work, then couch coaches throughout the Tampa Bay area are going to second guess this move to death, because the team would have been staring down the barrel of being down three games to one in the series.
Despite the win in overtime, 3 to 2, there were still some second guessers in blogs and sports radio because if it were not for Tyler Johnson’s heroics helping erase a two goal deficit, who knows if Coop wouldn’t have shelved the whole 7-11 thinking out of the box plan. Remember, that was the game in which Johnson scored Tampa’s first goal with less than five minutes in the game, then assisted on Ondrej Palat’s goal about a minute later, then scored two minutes into OT to even up the series at two games apiece. Here is a video of Johnson’s OT game winner.
So the 7-11 plan is now 1-0. So, what does Cooper do in game five? He reverts back to the 12-6 alignment and Tampa loses 4-0 and goes down three games to two in the first round. Cooper is nothing if not courageous, because he brings back the 11-7 format for game five and watches his team beat the Red Wings in Detroit in a must win situation by the score of 5-2. Coop’s 7-11 plan is coming up aces and is now 2-0.
Now, Cooper must be buying into to 7-11 alignment as he rolls it out for game seven and wouldn’t you know, the Lightning win the game as well as the series and the new alignment in his lineup is undefeated three games to none.
Simple Complexity or Complex Simplicity
When my father was attempting to teach me how to play chess, he taught me an opening by the name of “The Scholar’s Mate”. Done correctly, check mate can be accomplished in four moves. After teaching me these moves and seeing that I perfected it, my father flipped the board on me and instructed me to devise a defense against those simple four moves. I struggled and it was in this struggle that my father taught me a lesson. He said learning the four moves was learning complex simplicity.
In other words, learning these four moves that appeared random but each serving a purpose was a study in how hard it can be to do something simply. It took me time to learn these moves, but when I did they became second nature, simple. When he put me on defense, the lesson, much like the board was flipped and it became simple complexity. Coming up with the right defense to these moves was difficult and presented a whole new set of challenges for me. It should have been simple since I knew what moves he was going to make but it wasn’t and I struggled. Kind of like the coaches of the teams playing against the Lightning.
I bring this up because this lineup alignment that Jon Cooper has gone to is causing complex problems for the opposing coaches for which there are no simple answers. Dressing 11 forwards, Cooper is forcing himself to continually change the personnel on his lines. Yes, the Triplets stay intact but all other lines are mixed and matched throughout the course of the game.
It made it difficult for Mike Babcock and Michel Therrien in the early playoff series against Detroit and Montreal. Granted, the fourth time Cooper used this funky game lineup, the Lightning lost in game five in Montreal. They still maintained a three to two game lead in the series but the 7-11 alignment had just lost their first game after three wins.
Will Jon Cooper keep the 7-11?
After that game five loss in Montreal, Jon Cooper, despite the loss, again incorporated the 7-11 format and won game six to close out the Canadiens and push up the record of the unorthodox lineup to four wins against one loss.
More impressive than the 7-11’s won-loss record is that in the five games through the first two rounds that Jon Cooper used this alignment, the Tampa Bay Lightning have outscored their opponents by a whopping 15 to 7 margin. That should open anyone’s eyes to this notion.
You see, by playing only 11 forwards, Cooper has the ability to throw out line combinations that the other team and their coaches could not possibly have prepared for in practice. For example, in these particular games, we have seen Steven Stamkos with his customary line mates of Alex Killorn and Ryan Callahan. We have also witnessed Stamkos with Valtteri Filppula, Brian Boyle, even Ondrej Palat of the Triplets.
The structured four lines is obliterated with this strategy which makes defending the forwards so difficult and that works in Tampa’s favor. Complex Simplicity at its finest. The extra defenseman, Nikita Nesterov can be utilized on the power play as well as giving the other six D-men some rest in case of an overtime or three.
So after clinching a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals using the radical 7-11, what does Cooper do in game 1? Of course, he goes back to the 12-6. What does his team do? They lose game one to fall down in the series one game to none.
Well, not to risk upsetting the hockey gods, Cooper reverts back to the, dare I say, old tried and true, 7-11 mix in game two and his team responds. A 6-2 trouncing of the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden to not only even the series but wrestle back home ice for the series. So, overall the Bolts are at five wins and one loss with 7-11 and Lightning fans are probably wondering why Cooper doesn’t just cement this alignment for all of eternity.
Okay, so maybe he did as the Lightning stay with the lucky 7-11 in game three and get a very fortunate overtime victory to take a two games to one lead in the series and up the record of the 7-11 or 11-7 or whatever Coop wants to call it lineup to six wins and one loss. This funky 7-11 configuration has outscored their opponents in these seven games 27 to 14, almost doubling the goals. Did someone say this should be permanent?
We’ll see what happens from here on out. Defenseman Matt Carle was hurt in game three and could be out for game four. Knowing Cooper, I know that he’ll probably surprise me – not to mention the New York coaching staff. Will he be his own “cooler” so to speak? Alain Vigneault certainly has to at the very least prepare facing the daunting 7-11 at this point as his New York Rangers haven’t beat it yet.
Roll dem Dice and Hope it doesn’t come up Craps
At this point, I know that I don’t know what Cooper is going to do. It is well documented that he worked on Wall Street. He went to and graduated from Law School and practiced law for a few years. No doubt, he is an incredibly intelligent man but is he a gambling man? Does he continue to go against conventional wisdom or does he stick with his new fangled idea?
No one can doubt his coaching prowess, his trophy mantle and resume would suggest otherwise. He’s won multiple championships at multiple levels from high school to the AHL and is now one of four remaining coaches in the NHL vying for the Stanley Cup this season.
Jon Cooper will probably roll out the lineup and alignment he believes gives the Tampa Bay Lightning the best chance to win. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if we saw 8-10.
Born in Chicago, Illinois. Grew up playing and loving sports. Spent most of my formative years playing, debating, arguing and talking sports. for the last couple of years I have written about hockey. I am currently a Tampa Bay Lightning contributor for The Hockey Writers. I know that I may not always be right, but I am passionate about hockey and it is damn hard to hide that passion in my writing.