Fennelly: Lightning's Cooper ready for frantic offseason
The night in late March he was introduced, he was not so fresh, just off a plane from Syracuse, N.Y., head still spinning, and then he was at the arena, cameras aimed at the new Lightning coach.
“I'm coming to make the playoffs,” Jon Cooper said. He said he told Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, “I'm really going to try to screw up your draft pick.”
This week, a few days after the Lightning ended their season, 28th in the league, and on the day the NHL playoffs began, Cooper sat in the players lounge at the Forum. He made a wry smile. Get used to that.
“You guys got it all wrong,” Cooper said.
“If you really look into the code of what I was saying, what I really meant was, 'I'm going to run this team into the ground so we can get as great a draft pick as possible.'”
The Lightning won just four of their final 15 games after Cooper replaced Guy Boucher. But there's no way to judge the new man — coming in cold, 15 games from the end of an already truncated season.
“I did think we had a chance to make a push. But was I a true believer, or was that a little bit of a smart-aleck comment I made that night? It was. As you get to know me, you'll know that's a bit of my mantra.”
Dead ahead is a frantic offseason, pieces to add — and subtract — and a playing style to impart.
“If how we looked the last 15 games is how we look the first 15 games (next season), we're in trouble,” Cooper said.
Plucked from the American Hockey League, where his Lightning farm teams were nonstop winners, now he's heading up the leaking flagship, one that has missed the playoffs two consecutive seasons and five of the last six.
“There's just so much to do, so much,” Cooper said. “What I didn't realize is you just can't walk behind a bench and coach a team. You need to be with them, you need to have practices. It takes time. Was it difficult? Disappointing, that's probably more of what it was. It's a spot we never want to be in again.”
Cooper's plan is to make those last 15 games seem like a mirage. The end to this lost season was for evaluation, judgments, before hitting the ground next training camp. Cooper said wading in at midstream wasn't easy, but it will help him going forward.
“Now I know guys were playing positions I wouldn't play them in … or situations. Now, I know where I would use them, and where I wouldn't … or if we can use them at all.”
Next season will mark 10 years since the Lightning raised the Stanley Cup. Ten years ago, Cooper was coaching in Texarkana, Texas, holding a hose to flood the rink at a bandbox arena, kneeling down to help paint the lines on.
“Since they raised the Stanley Cup, I've gone from Texarkana to St. Louis to Green Bay to Norfolk to Syracuse to here. Marty (St. Louis) and Vinny (Lecavalier), they've been here that whole time.
“So I don't care who you are, when you walk into the room and you're with these guys, there's a moment when you go, 'They're actually right in front of me now, and I'm going to be their coach.' But that lasted until the end of my first meeting. Ultimately, no matter who they are, they're just guys who want to learn and win.”
His assessment of the team he inherited is frank.
“If you've asked anybody I've coached before, we play really hard and we're really hard to play against,” Cooper said. “This might be the easiest team to play against in the league.”
“Use your own adjectives,” Cooper said. “There are teams in our new division next year that are probably salivating over that, that they get to play us.”
The teams he coached in the Lightning system led the way in goals — and penalty minutes. In his dreams, Cooper says an NHL entry would be a cross between “the '70s Flyers and the '80s Oilers,” heavy on the Broad Street Bullies when need be.
“You don't have to fight, you just have to be willing to. The other team has to know that. You don't have to go into the corner and blow somebody up. You just have to be willing to do it. The other team has to know, and when they know, it changes the way they play.
“It takes a really high commitment, because it pulls players out of their comfort level. We're comfortable right now. This team is really comfortable. They don't want these results, but they're comfortable with them. I look at some of the players we have and I think we have a bunch of really, really good guys. But at some point some of them are going to have to grow a little dirt under their nails.”
This could be an interesting summer. An uncomfortable one, especially when Cooper sits down with even his star players to map out a new path for their games and their team's game. We see St. Louis and Steven Stamkos finishing 1 and 2 in league scoring. Cooper sees more for even them to give.
“A lot of these guys have it in them. It just hasn't been pulled out of them. My job is to pull it out of them. These players don't make it to this level by being soft. They have something in them.”
Cooper smiled again.
“This will be one of busiest summers I've ever had in my life.”