"You don’t lead by hitting people over the head—that’s assault, not leadership."
In March 2013 when Guy Boucher was let go by the Tampa Bay Lightning, fans in the Bay Area probably had mixed reactions. After all, here was a man who in his first coaching gig in the NHL led the Bolts to game 7 of the conference finals. One missed stick save by Thomas, or one slap shot that would have gone a few inches higher could have been the difference between the Lightning hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup rather than the eventual Bruins. But at the end of the day, hockey like all professional sports is a business; and if you’re not getting better you’re getting worse. The next two seasons were absolutely dismal, with Steven Stamkos’ plateu of 60 goals as the only memorable event in those two calendar years.
There’s a lot to be said for the Lightning’s unexpected success this season. Most people would point to Ben Bishop’s stellar year, and rightfully so. Then there’s the influx of young talented players, such as Alex Killorn, Onjrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov just to name a few. And keep in mind, this has all been without star Steven Stamkos for a majority of the year, and without high draft pick Jonathan Drouin who many (myself included) considered a lock to make the team. Then of course the offensive revivals of players like Victor Hedman and free-agent signing Valtteri Filppula came as a pleasant surprise to fans in the Bay Area.
But one man who might fall under the radar with all the other variables is the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jon Cooper. If you listen to how the Lightning players talk about him, Jon Cooper comes off as a player’s coach. A lot of them are familiar with him from the AHL. One thing that has been a reoccurring theme is that he holds players accountable. In any post-game interview, Cooper will mention an individual player by name if he played well, and also talk about what the team could improve on for the future.
So what brought Cooper to Tampa Bay? Well, his resume speaks for itself. Cooper has a Law degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Michigan. However, he pursued his goal of being a professional hockey coach, and in 2010 he was hired as the head coach of the Lightning’s AHL team Norfolk Admirals. In his second season, the Admirals amassed a record of 55-18, and during that span won 28 consecutive games, which is a North American professional hockey record. When asked about the streak, Cooper said that each game his team knew they would win, and the other team knew they would lose. "Everyone was playing with confidence." The Admirals would go on to streak through the playoffs, and win their last 8 games in a row to win the Calder Cup. What makes this incredible undertaking even more impressive is the talent that was on that team. There were only three players on that roster drafted in the first three rounds. In fact, of the Calder Cup team in Norfolk, an overwhelming 9 of those players were…you guessed it….Undrafted.
Of course huge amounts of credit have to go to the other leaders of the Tampa Bay Lightning. GM Steve Yzerman deserves credit for maneuvering for Ben Bishop, while maintaining a young, talented roster. Captain Marty St. Louis leads the team in points at the age of 38. But having Cooper at the helm of the ship seems to be the final factor to push the Lightning back into the playoffs.
In his second season coaching in the AHL, Jon Cooper led a team of hungry, and mostly undrafted, players to the promised land of the Calder Cup. Now in his second year coaching in the NHL, Cooper is in a similar situation. Many of those players like Killorn, Gudas, Johnson, and Palat he now coaches in Tampa where the Bolts are in prime position to make the playoffs. Can Cooper lead another team of young, hungry upstarts to the Stanley Cup? Who knows, but all the pieces are in place for Lightning to strike twice.