No word has been associated with the Jon Cooper era of the Tampa Bay Lightning more than the word “Swagger.” It describes the way Cooper’s team plays, from the tic-tac-toe passes to Nikita Kucherov’s breakaway moves. It describes his look behind the bench, the confident smirk that annoys other fan bases to no end.
The word has circled Jon Cooper from day one with the Lightning. In an article with the Tampa Bay Times^ before Cooper coached his first game with the team, Cory Conacher described his system as, “A little run-and-gun. A lot of physical play, a lot of swagger on the ice.” The new coach himself echoed those words in the same article: “There’s been a certain type of swagger with the teams I’ve coached, and you have to have that to win. You respect your opponent but you don’t fear them.”
That swagger, that style of play has led Coach Cooper to a franchise record 242 wins behind the Lightning bench. He surpassed John Tortorella’s previous mark of 239 wins on March 31st with a victory over the New York Rangers, a victory that came at a most needed time. A time when the players admitted that they needed to “get their swagger back.”
In his brief career with the Lightning, just five full seasons, Cooper has taken the Lightning to the playoffs four times, Eastern Conference Finals twice, the Stanley Cup Finals once, twice had 50 wins in the regular season and topped 100 points three times. The one year they didn’t make it to the playoffs under his tenure they missed by one point.
Unfortunately hockey, like most sports, is a “what have you done for me lately” environment, especially among fans. Despite his record of success, during their recent swagger-less run of mediocre play, some fans had been calling for the head of Jon Cooper on social media. Expect it to get worse if the Lightning fail to make it out of the first round.
Luckily the ownership of the Lightning isn’t as fickle as these fans. If there was ever a time when Cooper faced having to file for unemployment it was last winter when the Lightning were at the bottom of the standings and mired in a stretch of object mediocrity. Still, Mr. Vinik and Mr. Yzerman held fast and resisted the urge to “shake things up”. Their faith was rewarded when the team turned things around and almost pulled off a climb back into the playoffs.
An argument can be made that despite not making the playoffs last season, it might have been the best stretch of Coach Cooper’s time in Tampa. What gets a lot of coaches in trouble is their inability to adapt the style of play they with the talent they have on the roster. The 2016-17 Lightning were beat up, their captain was out all season, and despite the transcendental play of Nikita Kucherov, they weren’t the high-flying transition team that he was used to coaching. So he changed the way they play. The dialed back the running-and-gunning a bit and focused on the physical play, especially in the defensive zone. Victories started to pile up, and while they might not have had the thrill of players winging down the ice willy-nilly, it was effective.
With the relative success they had at the end of last season, Cooper could have continued that style of play despite the returned healthy of his players. Instead he went back to coaching the way that had made him successful - transition, relentless pressure in the offensive zone and a reliance on stellar goaltending when things break down. That style, which can overwhelm teams at times, is hard to maintain through an 82-game schedule. So, after a blazing hot start the Lightning faltered a bit as the calendar switched to 2018. They were still winning, but the wins didn’t seem as impressive for some reason. Then came March when the wins slowed to a crawl.
While the fan base was busy melting down, Coach Cooper didn’t seem too concerned. Sure it would be nice if they tightened up play in the defensive zone a bit and maybe, just maybe kill off a penalty or two, but at no point did he go on a tirade to the media or castigate any of his players. It might be too much of a stretch to say they he didn’t care about the regular season games once the team clinched a playoff spot, his lack of concern seemed to indicate perhaps he was more focused on the bigger picture - the playoffs.
Which is surprising coming from a coach that not three months ago told the Tampa Bay Times Martin Fennelly that he is driven more from the “fear of losing” than the pleasure of winning. It’s a trait that he shares with the man who he just passed on the Lightning’s win chart - Tortorella. Their styles may be different, Cooper doesn’t have the same fire-and-brimstone fury that Tortorella brought to the bench, but they are equally demanding. With Cooper there may not be the yelling involved, but if a player isn’t playing up to his expectations he simply doesn’t play. Whether it’s a lengthy rest on the bench or a first row seat in the press box, if they’re not abiding by his wishes there are consequences.
It’s doubtful that Tortorella would ever describe himself as a “people manager” as Cooper did when interviewed by Inside Hockey shortly before coaching his first playoff game with Tampa. Yet, that’s what today’s NHL coach needs to be. The talent is there, so there isn’t as much teaching in the NHL as there is in some of Cooper’s other stops in his coaching career. At the top level it’s about getting the players to buy into your system, and these days, screaming at them until you are blue in the face doesn’t work as well.
When Cooper signed his coaching extension in 2015, it was during the middle of Steven Stamkos’ final season before free agency. There were rumors that the captain and the coach didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things and that Cooper’s extension could be the impetus that sent Stamkos searching for a new employer. Needless to say that didn’t happen.
They managed to come to a place where they can co-exist on the team and succeed. That is the type of player management that coaches in the NHL have to be good at in order to succeed. Gaining the respect of a player and getting them to believe in a system is more important these days then screaming and throwing sticks on the ice. When he was hired by the Lightning, goalie Dustin Tokarski (who played for Cooper in Norfolk and Syracuse) said this^^:
“You went to the rink every day and you wanted to work hard for him. You wanted to put your blood, sweat and tears out there for him.”
While he has yelled at the occasional ref from time to time, his usual negative expression is one of exasperated disappointment.
Jon Cooper is a high school teacher who just can’t get through to his kids pic.twitter.com/Uq7HWo3CFW— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) March 30, 2018
Coach Cooper was blessed with a lot more talent on his teams than Tortorella was, especially early in his career. That and the elimination of tie games have a lot to do with why he was able to eclipse Tortorella’s record despite coaching more than 100 less games. Having more talent doesn’t necessarily make it easier, there have been plenty of coaches that have failed to lead talented teams to victory.
Leading teams to victory has been a hallmark of his career — a career that isn’t as “outside” of hockey as the national media likes to paint it. Only in hockey can someone who has been coaching full-time, at all levels, for 15 years be described as an outsider. Yet, because he spent some time working on Wall Street and practiced a little law two decades ago, Cooper is treated like a bit of a unicorn.
He’s coached in high school, the North American Hockey League, the American Hockey League and now the NHL. Everywhere he has went he has won a championship. The Stanley Cup has eluded him so far, but so has a losing season. His success at every level and his familiarity with the young players he had coached in Norfolk and Syracuse were two of the reasons Mr. Yzerman hired him after Guy Boucher’s defensive system wore out their welcome.
To continue to succeed behind the bench, Cooper will have to show that he can eek out the blood and sweat from players he didn’t coach in the lower levels. The success of Yanni Gourde, Anthony Cerilli and JT Miller, young talented players that were introduced to the pros under different coaches, bodes well for Cooper’s future. If he can instill his particular brand of swagger into the next wave of talent, the Mathieu Joseph/Mitchell Stephens generation, then another 240 wins behind the Lightning bench isn’t out of reach for Cooper.
^ CRISTODERO, DAMIAN. “PLAYOFFS? ... PLAYOFFS!” Tampa Bay TimesMar 27 2013. ProQuest. Web. 4 Apr. 2018 .
^^CRISTODERO, DAMIAN. “BOLTS HIRE FROM WITHIN.” Tampa Bay TimesMar 26 2013. ProQuest. Web. 4 Apr. 2018 .