Late last night, Elliotte Friedman reported that Associate Coach Rick Bowness will not return to the Tampa Bay Lightning for the 2018-2019 season. [Update. The Lightning confirmed that Bowness and assistant coach Brad Lauer will not return next season]. Bowness had been with the team since June of 2013. He holds the record for most games coached in the NHL. He broke that record initially last February when he coached his 2,165th game and now has coached in nearly 2,300 games.
A bit of late-night coaching news: there is word Rick Bowness will not be returning to the TB bench. Bowness was a finalist for the ANA job in 2016 — and no doubt there will be interest.— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) May 31, 2018
Bowness’ duties in Tampa included coaching the defense and the penalty kill. He also served as a mentor of sorts for head coach Jon Cooper. Cooper had no experience in the NHL before being hired as head coach of the Lightning and Bowness’ experience helped guide to Cooper as he got to know the league.
The change should not come as much of a surprise to Lightning fans. Geo mentioned this was a possibility in his article yesterday and Matt and I discussed it on the most recent episode of the podcast.
The biggest issues for the Lighting this season and in recent seasons have been on the blue line. Neutral zone defense and breakouts have been consistent sore points for this team. Some of that is due to personnel decisions. Having players like Dan Girardi, Braydon Coburn, Jason Garrison, Adrej Sustr, and Matt Carle all playing key roles over the last few years hasn’t helped.
While we can’t know exactly how responsibility is divvied up in the coaches’ room, it appears that this is the most logical change to make after a mostly strong season. If the understanding is that Bowness led the defense and the penalty kill, and those are deemed the primary areas of weakness, looking to make changes there makes sense.
Moving on from Bowness leaves a hole in the Lightning coaching staff. How they choose to fill that will tell us some things about the status of head coach Jon Cooper. Bowness’ title was Associate Coach. Will the Lightning name a new Associate Coach or just have a staff of assistants under Cooper? If the latter, that would suggest that the team is giving Cooper a bit more clear cut control over his staff. If the former, it suggests the team thinks he still needs a named second-in-command.
If they do decide to name an Associate Coach, current assistant Todd Richards is an option. He has revamped a putrid power play into one of the league’s best and rewarding him for that would make sense. The team could also bring in a new Associate Coach to lead the defense and penalty kill similar to Bowness’ role but that might be tough to swallow for Richards given his seniority on staff.
Whatever the Lightning decide to do, the key is that they find someone with a progressive defensive approach to match their progressive offensive approach. They need someone who has a vision for how to correct the problems that have plagued the team in the defensive zone over the last few years. A consistent breakout system that gets the puck to the forwards with space in the neutral zone would make a good offense even better.
Contrary to previous years, this team now has a wealth of talent to coach on the blue line. The top four of Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman, and Mikhail Sergachev is among the best in the league. And after them, Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn are both capable in limited roles if used correctly. That collection of players should appeal to coaching candidates and give them an advantage over other teams.
The new coach also needs to be skilled in player development. Maximizing Sergachev’s impact will be one of the keys for the team over the next few years. He has star potential and if this team wants to continue to compete for Stanley Cups, he needs to realize that potential. After Sergachev, Cal Foote is only a year or two away. Eric Cernak offers another potential NHL player depending on how he performs in camp and the AHL next year.
Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin represent potential opportunities for reclamation or late development projects. Both have shown parts of skill sets that suggest they can be NHL players but neither has been able to find the well-rounded consistency required to be a regular on a good NHL team.
Bowness’ contributions to the Lightning are significant. He’s part of the reason this team made three conference finals in the last four years. He’s had an extraordinary career already and from the tone of Friedman’s tweet, it sounds like he’ll be looking to continue that career elsewhere rather than retire. In the right role with the right roster, he’ll be an asset to a new team.
This change represents an opportunity for the Lightning. Finding the right person who can improve their approach defensively and maximize the potential of the players on the roster could push this team to the next level. That’s the challenge that Steve Yzerman and the front office face.
The official press release:
LIGHTNING ANNOUNCE COACHING STAFF CHANGES
Associate Coach Rick Bowness, Assistant Brad Lauer Will Not Return
TAMPA BAY – The Tampa Bay Lightning today announced that associate coach Rick Bowness has been relieved of his duties and the team has mutually agreed to part ways with assistant coach Brad Lauer, according to vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman.
“Jon Cooper and I, along with the entire organization, would like to thank Rick and Brad for their service to the Lightning,” Yzerman said. “Rick has served a significant role on our coaching staff since 2013, while Brad has been a part of two teams that reached the Eastern Conference Final. We appreciate all their knowledge and effort.”
Bowness joined the Lightning as associate coach on June 3, 2013. He oversaw the defensive unit, as well as the penalty kill. Bowness coached in his 2,000thNHL game on February 7, 2015. Prior to joining the Lightning, he spent seven seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, serving as associate coach.
Lauer has served as an assistant coach with the Lightning since August of 2015, focusing on all facets of the game. Before joining Tampa Bay he spent four seasons with the Anaheim Ducks.