TAMPA — Vinny Lecavalier is gone. Playoff memories have faded. Five of the past six years on the outside looking in will do that. The new division is loaded with wolves, and the Lightning have the smell of mutton, the feel of a franchise ready to step back before it steps forward, yes, even with Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis and Steve Yzerman. Then there’s the new coach. Yes, it’s still new for Jon Cooper, who came in late last lost season, won just four times in 15 games, took copious mental notes, but was possessed the whole time by the unearthly feeling that losing simply meant a higher draft pick, which in fact it did, third overall, 18-year-old scoring dervish Jonathan Drouin. “It was weird,” Cooper said. It was weird because Cooper has won anywhere he has been on his way up the hockey ladder. He never intends to feel that way again, even now, as hockey magazines and hockey experts peg the Lightning, who last season finished 28th in their 30-team league, for just such a fate this time around … 13th, 14th in the Eastern Conference.
There’s just one problem when you run that by Cooper. “I’m not throwing failure into the equation. I’ve never done that,” he said. Cooper was eating at a local restaurant, munching on those predictions a few weeks before his first training camp as Lightning coach, and on questions some people still have about this team: a world without Vinny, getting help for Stamkos and reigning scoring champion St. Louis, tightening up on defense, and goaltenders Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop, or Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback. This team might be dotted with rookie or close to rookies. “Here’s my thing,” Cooper said. “Would I personally rather be the team everybody is picking first? I would. Because when everyone is picking you first, you’ve earned your right to be there, everybody knows you’re good. There’s that aura about you. “But am I uncomfortable that people are picking us 13th or 14th, or seventh or eighth in our division? Not at all. We just came in 28th. How can you pick us any higher? We brought in one player. It’s not like people are snubbing us. Hopefully, a year from now, we won’t be picked in that spot and we’ll have shown progress.” He thought about this, his first Bolts camp as coach: “Just because I’ve gotten here, it isn’t like, ‘Oh, I made it,’ ” Cooper said. “On a personal level, I’ve had a lot of success in coaching and won championships along the way. To me, there are a lot of people out there who are like, ‘You can’t do it,’ who’ve said, ‘No,’ the whole way and continue to do it. I know there are people who think, ‘He’s not going to do it.’ For me, that’s a motivating factor.” He was asked about Lecavalier: “I got to enjoy Vinny in the short time he was here. I was sad to see him go. Again, what he did for this team, this community, this franchise, you can’t put words to what he’s done. In saying that, he’s a casualty of a contract, a cap casualty. There are a lot of people who say we gave up on Vinny. We didn’t. It was strictly a business decision. For the benefit of the organization and moving forward, we had to get rid of his contract.” And about Bishop and Lindback: “If you’re looking for the answer what I don’t like about them, would be I wish they had more NHL game experience. That’s what we’re going to go through right now. They’re going to get their NHL experience with us, now.” And top pick Drouin: “Drouin comes with huge expectations because he’s a top three pick. But he’s also 18 years old. ... Steven Stamkos was taken No. 1. I think he didn’t play every game with the team. He was scratched a little bit, had to learn his way, cut his teeth. It took him some time to figure it out. “If that same type of development can happen with Jonathan Droiun, then we’ve hit a home run. But don’t forget Stamkos’ first year and not expect Drouin to go through some of the same struggles.” Jon Cooper smiled. “I’d rather have the team picked No. 1. But I suppose, in a sense, coming into my first NHL job, might as well grab the 28 team and see what we can do with that. We have a lot of good guys, and we have a lot of guys who are just waiting to jump out, waiting for it to happen.” The coach among them.