Tampa Bay Lightning
Cooper's goal: Turn around Lightning, make playoffs
New Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper received his first official introduction to Tampa on Tuesday, battling rush-hour traffic on I-275 to get to his introductory news conference in a timely manner.
Then he introduced himself to the town by stating his intentions for the remaining 15 games of the regular season with Tampa Bay in an uphill climb to get to the playoffs. Cooper shared a conversation he had with Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman.
“I'm coming here to make the playoffs,'' Cooper said. “And when Steve offered me the job, and obviously (owner Jeff) Vinik and (CEO) Tod (Leiweke), I was sitting there talking with Steve and I asked him, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' And he said, 'I want to do this.' I said, 'Because if you do this, I'm really going to try to screw up your draft pick.'
“So that's where we are at.''
It's that sort of mentality that earned Cooper his first opportunity as a head coach in the NHL after leading Tampa Bay's minor-league affiliate to a championship last season — a run that included a North American hockey record 28-game wining streak to end the regular season.
He believes the seemingly impossible is possible, and he makes his players believe they can do the same.
“He's one of those guys who will get the best out of every player,'' said Tyler Johnson, who was a key part of Cooper's championship team last season. “He knows how to push players.''
Former Lightning first-round pick Brett Connolly, who struggled at times as a rookie with Tampa Bay last season, thrived under Cooper this season in Syracuse, where Connolly has seen his all-around game improve while scoring 26 goals and 56 points in 64 games.
“He's a guy who is extremely hard on me, and all the video sessions, if there is something that I'm not doing right he will let me know right away. There have been very few video sessions where I have escaped stuff from him,'' Connolly said. “He's a guy who his players love to play for and will go through a wall for him. I think that he's going to do very well.''
Cooper's track record with the organization's top young players has been impeccable, with eight players from last season's Norfolk championship team currently with the Lightning. But he will have to find a way to get that same message across to Tampa Bay's top players such as Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Marty St. Louis and other veterans.
“From what I've heard, he's a great coach,'' said Stamkos, who leads the league with 23 goals this season. “We have a lot of guys that were under his tutelage for the past couple of years and they seem to love him and respect him. I've got to meet him a couple of times around training camp and he seems like a great guy.
“But obviously we'll see what he's like as a coach, but from what I've heard from everyone down in Syracuse that played with him, they think he is a great coach and his record speaks for itself.''
Cooper watched Tuesday's game – a 2-1 victory over Buffalo - from the press box with Yzerman and held his first meeting with the team after the game. Cooper is expected to hold his first on-ice practice with the players today.
It will cap off what was been an emotional 48 hours for Cooper, following the firing of former coach Guy Boucher, to leading Syracuse through practice Monday before his hiring became official late Monday night. Cooper jumped on a plane from Syracuse, N.Y., on Tuesday afternoon and arrived just ahead of the Sabres game wearing a Lightning lapel pin on his suit jacket.
“It's been sleepless nights, like exhilarating, I guess that's a good word for it,'' Cooper said. “One day you win a game, a tough week, then everything goes down and you get a call from your boss giving you unbelievable news and bad news, all at the same time because every time somebody gets promoted, somebody loses their job. So it was just a case of unbelievable emotions. There was the big, long pause and just that wave of emotions.
“When I took a step back and got off the phone with Steve, I may have screamed really loud in the car.”