Lightning: Is It Time to Fire Cooper?

The start of the 2019-20 NHL season has a bit of a deja vu feeling to it for the Tampa Bay Lightning. After playing the Florida Panthers in five straight games (three pre-season, two regular-season) the Lightning finally faced the Carolina Hurricanes, their first non-Floridian based foe for the first time in close to two weeks.

What followed was one of the worst games played by the Lightning this decade. The team was badly outplayed, with a perfect summation of their effort being the two shots they mustered in the final two periods plus overtime.

Carolina Hurricanes Erik Haula Tampa Bay Lightning Curtis McElhinney
Inarguably, the only player who made a positive impact against the Carolina Hurricanes was Curtis McElhinney, who stole a point for the Tampa Bay Lightning. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

The fact that the Lightning managed to pull an overtime point out of this mess of a game is a perfect snapshot of what is wrong in Tampa Bay. The team can take periods of a game off, and still manage a somewhat positive result due to raw talent alone.

This issue is not a new one for the Lightning. In fact, it has been haunting this team for years, as THW said back on March 4, 2018:

This lack of complete games has been an issue for the Lightning all year long. It started when the team would jump out to early multi-goal leads in the first two periods, allowing them to coast in the third.

Simply put, Tampa Bay doesn’t play 60 minutes of hockey each night. You normally get 20 to 40 minutes of great play, bookended by stretches of bad passing and defensive mistakes. This has become a part of the Lightning’s DNA, and it’s starting to look like the team needs a serious culture change before this issue will be resolved.

Now, does this mean that the Lightning should consider parting ways with head coach Jon Cooper? While this may feel like a knee-jerk reaction, the answer is pointing more and more towards yes.

Lightning Struggle with the Same Issues

The idea of firing Cooper is not one that should be taken lightly. He has been an amazing coach for Tampa Bay, taking the team to playoffs five times in six seasons, while amassing 306 wins. He is beloved by his players as well, with many starting their career alongside him with the Lightning’s then-AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals.

All of this success shouldn’t make him immune to criticism, however. While he has always won a lot of regular-season games, he has been consistently outcoached in the playoffs, most recently being completely outclassed by John Tortorella of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Due to Cooper’s lack of adaptation, the Lightning have struggled with many of the same issues. The team constantly starts games late, falling behind two or three goals before deciding to match the tempo of game day hockey. Once again, due to raw offensive talent, this issue has been masked, but it has been this way for years.

Head coach Jon Cooper
While Jon Cooper has been an incredibly successful head coach with the Lightning, the franchise has consistently dealt with a number of the same issues for years. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

By not playing complete 60-minute games, the Lightning have lost important games in the postseason. Home games where they should have been able to take the energy of the crowd and walk away from the opponent.

Instead, they found themselves flailing, either giving up a goal in the first minute of play or completely shutting down after scoring two or three goals themselves.

Is Firing Cooper the Only Option?

It’s difficult to say that firing Cooper would be a good move for the Lightning right now, especially with the 2019-20 season being so young. A move like this could throw the entire team out of balance, costing them valuable games in October and November.

However, should they wait, the Lightning may find themselves in the same position as they did in the 2019 Playoffs: a team that was supremely talented but ultimately lost due to a lack of urgency and complete efforts.

Related: Lightning: 2019-20 Season Preview

Given the fact that the core of the Lightning isn’t getting any younger, it may be time for a drastic move to be made. Even if the Bolts start the season strong, they can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes over again.

So, if Cooper fails to show that he is capable of adapting his gameplan by getting the Lightning to play complete games, he should be given the hook, even if the team is finding ways to win games based on raw talent alone. Because, as we are all well aware, raw talent doesn’t win Stanley Cups.