After the Tampa Bay Lightning’s sudden and disappointing end to another deep playoff run, there was an instantaneous reaction from a contingency of the fanbase that it was time for the team to move on from head coach Jon Cooper. While this was largely a guttural reaction to a crushing playoff meltdown, it is worth asking the question, is Cooper still the coach of the future for the Lightning?
The immediate answer is, of course, yes, as Cooper has done more in his tenure as head coach than just about anyone else in the franchise’s 25 years in the NHL. During the 2017-18 season, Cooper recorded his 240th career NHL win, which broke John Tortorella’s franchise wins record for a head coach.
Since he took over coaching duties from Guy Boucher in 2013, the Bolts have made the postseason each year outside of the 2016-17 season, when the Lightning missed out by a point. In many ways, you know things are going well when a meltdown in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final is seen as an unacceptable loss.
Lightning Shouldn’t Scapegoat Cooper
This doesn’t mean that Cooper should be safe if he keeps coming up short in the postseason, though. You only have to look at Bruce Boudreau to see a successful regular season coach who was fired after a series of playoff losses. While Cooper hasn’t had the same level of postseason struggles that Boudreau had (yet), there is a pattern: take a highly-touted regular season team on a deep playoff run, only fall apart when the moment is close.
Firing Cooper now, though, would be to make the head coach a scapegoat for losing to a great Washington Capitals team. Even if the Lightning didn’t get on the scoreboard in their final two games against the Caps, they were still competitive, only just missing many of their best scoring chances. Changing the head coach wouldn’t give the team better puck luck and would be a solution looking for a problem.
In fact, this year in the NBA there was an even more bizarre instance of making the head coach a scapegoat. Despite having one of the greatest regular seasons in team history, the Toronto Raptors fired Coach of the Year nominee Dwane Casey after they were swept by the Cleaveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs. This was considered a reactionary move by many, and one that could hinder the franchise’s future, especially if there isn’t a clear replacement available to hire.
While it is common in any professional sport for the coach to take the blame when things end poorly in the playoffs, it’s a move that can’t be made lightly, especially if you don’t have an immediate, and better, replacement ready to go.
With Assistants Changing, Cooper Is Secure
Recently, the Lightning announced that assistant coaches Rick Bowness and Brad Lauer would not be returning to the Lightning for the 2018-19 season. Both of these coaches had been with the organization for many years. Bowness was hired in 2013 to act as a mentor and associate coach to Cooper, who was a rookie NHL coach at the time. In many ways, he was the contingency plan if things went south in Cooper’s first years behind the bench.
The decision to move on from Bowness, for all intents and purposes, showcases how secure Cooper’s job is with the organization. Instead of turning over the entire coaching staff, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman decided to change the one area where they struggled most: on defense and the penalty kill.
A similar situation occurred a few years ago when the Lightning inexplicably had one of the worst power plays in the league despite having talented offensive players. Yzerman brought in Todd Richards, a power-play specialist, who immediately turned the team’s fortunes around while on the man advantage. Should some new blood among the coaching staff have a similar effect on the languid penalty kill, the Lightning will continue to be at the top of the NHL standings next season.
Cooper Is Still the Best Option for the Lightning
No, things have not been perfect for the Lightning with Cooper as head coach. Despite getting close many times, the team has yet to reach that seemingly insurmountable goal of a Stanley Cup in recent years. Until he wins a Cup, there will continue to be questions about his viability as the bench boss in Tampa Bay.
With this in mind, Lightning fans should be happy with what Cooper brings to the team night in and night out. His success behind the bench isn’t solely due to the amazing talent he has worked with. He has found a way to endear himself to his players in a meaningful way, creating a trust in the locker room that is almost palpable.
This sort of belief in one’s coach can only be built with years of shared experience. Making a change now just for the sake of making a change would destroy that trust and could cause a far greater loss for the Lightning than just coming up short in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.