As the season ends, members of Tampa Bay Lightning reflect on the ups and downs of a very tumultuous season. For the sake of clarity and fluency, I have omitted extraneous uses of the phrases “you know,” “obviously,” “and,” “so,” and “but.”
Question: What was your message to them [the players] as you told them goodbye for the summer?
Jon Cooper: Ultimately, the - We can pat ourselves on the back for a job well done getting ourselves to 94 points, but ultimately 94 points wasn’t good enough. I stand here addressing you today in the second week of April when in past years we’ve been doing this in May and June. I always say, “Judge us after 82 [games].”
It was a hell of a run we made. 94 points can get you in most years. It got you in in the other [Western] Conference. It just didn’t get us in because there were eight other teams that did better than that.
We can’t accept that. Ultimately it’s about winning in this league. You take a lot of the other positives that have come out of this. From our owner to a fan base that’s just rabid about hockey and, as I said last night, a love affair between the team and the city. They want to see playoff hockey.
Over the last two years, we’ve brought families together and friends and our watch parties. It’s all been kind of part of our culture. Not to have that this year is tough to swallow.
You look at this season and think, “It was good. It just wasn’t good enough.” That has to change. We’ve set a standard here that is extremely high. I guess this was - to me this is our mulligan. Now we’ve got to come back next year with a renewed focus and understand there’s going to be competition for jobs. We’ve got to be better. That’s it.
Question: Jon, do you look back at January - just three victories, or going 1-5 against the bottom three teams in the league [Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, and Vancouver Canucks] - does that bother you knowing that it wasn’t a quality...?
Cooper [interrupts]: No, because you sit back and say, “Well, we beat Chicago twice. We beat Washington.” We beat some of the good teams anyway. I look at it and say we lost 30 games. Just take two of those - it doesn’t matter against who.
This is a tough league. I know we lost to a couple of teams that didn’t make the playoffs, but we weren’t the only team those teams beat. They won games as well. It’s not about the “who,” it’s about the streaks.
You just can’t have multiple loss streaks and we had a couple of those. I mentioned last night the stretch after Thanksgiving and the stretch after New Years. Those are the two that probably did us in.
If you go through a season and the maximum you lose are two in a row, you’ve got a pretty good chance. That means you’re doing a lot of winning in between there. That’s what we didn’t do.
I don’t look at it as one particular game or teams or anything like that. It was: we had to stop the bleeding. We could’ve bled once, just couldn’t do it twice. We did it and it cost us.
Question: Steve [Yzerman] mentioned there were some roster spots open for next year with some moves you made at the deadline and maybe a few this summer with the [Vegas Golden Knights] Expansion Draft. Do you expect some sort of changes to a team that maybe didn’t have any changes coming into this year?
Cooper: Well, did you expect Brayden Point to make the team last year? I don’t think anybody did, including Brayden Point - which meant there was a roster spot taken. I think, just the ability - Can that happen again? For sure it can.
Again, part of the message to the team was nobody can take anything for granted here. You’ve got to put the work in and now the excuse of, “You’ve played so much hockey over the last few years,” which these guys have - especially the guys that were in the American League back in 2012. Like every summer’s just - and then you throw in World Cups.
This is now a summer where we can rest. That’s not always a bad thing, but we have to take advantage of it. As I said, there’s going to be a new group of guys coming into training camp next year. They’re all going to want to make the team. We will build the best team for the guys that are deserving.
Question: A lot of teams have injuries, but how much did you guys miss Steven Stamkos? What are your thoughts on Steven and just sort of the way his career’s gone the last few years?
Cooper: You’ve got to feel for - it’s not that his career’s gone bad, it’s just he’s spent a lot of it in the stands. For a variety of injuries. That happens to players. The Andrew Cogliano’s of the world that have played 700 straight games, you marvel at that because it’s hard to do.
You look at our team, not one of our players played 82 games this year. It’s hard to do. It’s unfortunate because a player of Steven’s caliber, you want him in the lineup.
As I said, you field 20 guys on the ice. He’s a big part of our team, but you can’t sit here and say, “We lost one guy so that was it for our season.” He would’ve helped, there’s no question. But we had a multitude of guys get hurt.
As I said before, our team game wasn’t good enough in the first half of the year like we were in the second half of the year. When you don’t make the playoffs, it’s not, “Well this guy...” - it’s all of us. We’re all a part of this, myself included.
The one thing about Stammer being out is you feel for him. You know how much he wants to play and that’s the toughest part. Losing your captain, it’s tough. Hopefully, now this is a longer rest period for him. We’d expect him to be at full health when he comes in September.
Question: When it got to day-to-day status [for Stamkos’ return], were you surprised that he didn’t make it out there toward the end of the season?
Cooper: Well, no. The day-to-day status was just based on he was feeling better. He was day-to-day. Who knows? If we made the playoffs, maybe he would have had the opportunity to come back. We were pushing the envelope a little bit. You don’t want to put him in harm’s way and that’s the decision that was made, probably for the best.
Question: You’ve had a lot of young guys step up this year with all the injuries. We saw a glimpse of what Jo [Jonathan Drouin] could do last year in the playoffs. What did you think of how he was able to translate over the course of a full season?
Cooper: Well I think he did really well. He ended up north of 50 points. I thought he brought stability to our power play in the absence of Stammer. I think there was really good chemistry with that group down the stretch. I think that was a big reason, or part of the reason we were having success.
He’s growing into the game, in all facets of it. We need guys to step in for the Stamkos’s and he was one of the guys that stepped in and helped us get to a point where we were now.
Question: What are you going to do with the extra two months off?
Cooper: I don’t know. I haven’t even thought about that yet. The family, for sure. [chuckles]
Question: This is unprecedented territory for you. You’re not used to having this [inaudible]. How quickly do you start preparing for next year?
Cooper: You do have to remember, the year I got hired, I came for those 15 games.
Question: Oh, after Syracuse?
Cooper: Hopefully they’re [the Syracuse Crunch] set up to make the playoffs here and go on a run. That gives you an opportunity to go see the prospects, which I never get to see during the year. Go back to the old stomping grounds. I was only there for a year, but it was a great year.
It’s just time to take a step back, take a breath, analyze what happened this year, and prepare for next year. The final thing we talked about in the room with the players is, “It started today.” We can’t look back and say training camp started next year, it is today. How you prep for today, both mentally and physically, will determine how we’re going to start next year.
As a coaching staff, sit back, take a day or two, and then figure out how we’re going to get better.
Question: How did this open your eyes as a coach to different things? Make a lot of adjustments as different players moved, injuries. I’m sure uncharted territory for you. How do you change as a coach because of it?
Cooper: Every year’s different whether you win the Stanley Cup or you don’t make the playoffs. You go through - there’s different hurdles, different speed bumps. In the end, we didn’t make the playoffs as a team. We’re part of the team.
Did we - ultimately, we were three points less than last year. Does that make us a failure season? No. We grew as a team. We grew as a coaching staff. We had to change things a little bit to help put us in a position to win games and it worked out. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. You bank the ones that did and use it as experience and move on.
It was growing for everybody. It was growing for us as an organization. We’ll be better for it.