After the Tampa Bay Lightning experienced one of the worst postseason collapses in NHL history, head coach Jon Cooper found himself on the hot seat despite leading the team to a 62-win season. Cooper, who is currently the longest-tenured coach in the NHL, has been a regular target of ire due to the Lightning’s playoff collapses throughout his career.
It’s not that Cooper has ever been bad as a head coach, either. The reason why he has held his job for six-plus years is due to his ability to win at all points of his career. It’s just that he has never been able to get the Lightning to a Stanley Cup victory, despite holding 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final in 2016 and 2018 while reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2015.
One big concern about moving on from Cooper for Tampa Bay is simple: who could replace him? The Lightning are in a win-now mode, needing to reach the ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup before the massive contracts of their star players limit the franchise’s ability to adapt to the league.
Finding a coach who fits this win-now mentality is a difficult one, and there really wasn’t anyone on the market that lined up with the Lightning’s needs. If a change were to be made, it would seemingly have to take place in the 2020 offseason at the soonest, giving Cooper at least one more season to win a Stanley Cup.
Babcock Firing Opens Possibilities for Lightning
That was, of course, before the Toronto Maple Leafs fired former head coach Mike Babcock. With his firing, the coaching market suddenly added one of the biggest names in the industry at a rather early point in the season.
If the Lightning were looking for a new, yet experienced voice in their locker room, Babcock could be a perfect fit. Few coaches have a resume as deep as his, with a Stanley Cup, two Olympic gold medals and over 1,300 games behind the bench to his name.
Why Wouldn’t Babcock Fit with Lightning?
Now that Babcock is on the coaching market, the next logical question for the Lightning is: would he be enough of a change to justify firing Cooper?
As mentioned earlier, Cooper has seen nothing but success with Tampa Bay, posting 314 wins in 526 games behind the bench. Even with his playoff shortcomings, firing a coach who is so deeply ingrained in the Lightning’s player culture could have a catastrophic effect on the franchise on a whole.
There’s also the fact that a reason why the Maple Leafs fired Babcock was his inability to fully utilize his roster. His deployment of star players was often seen as questionable, with some heart and soul grinders seeing ice-time when superstar scorers likely should have been getting the spotlight.
Considering that the Lightning’s roster is full of smaller, high-skill players, this may not work well in Babcock’s system. He could struggle to properly deploy scorers like Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point, who are smaller, more defensively minded forwards.
Should Lightning Consider Moving to Babcock?
Having the longest-tenured coach in the NHL is both a blessing and a curse for the Lightning. Cooper brings a certain amount of stability and confidence to the franchise, but fans are also well aware of all of his shortcomings.
Due to this, the idea of firing Cooper and handing coaching duties off to Babcock is enticing. A new, powerful voice in the locker room could be the exact thing needed to make this roster take the next step.
However, just because a change can be made, it doesn’t mean that it should be. Cooper is deeply connected with the current roster, where Babcock has no experience with them. If he failed to endear himself with the team, he could permanently lose the locker room before he got a real opportunity to showcase his coaching abilities.
So, it would only make sense to fire Cooper mid-season if the Lightning were truly in trouble. Right now, the team is struggling, but they are still doing enough to keep relevant in the playoff hunt.
While Babcock wouldn’t necessarily be a bad option, rushing to make a change for the sake of making a change would be. No, Cooper hasn’t been perfect for Tampa Bay, but he has earned one more chance to win a Stanley Cup with the Lightning.
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.