Cooper on team's slump: 'Everybody is frustrated'
You knew it was coming.
With the Lightning underachieving, going from preseason Stanley Cup favorites to dangerously out of playoff position, there were going to be frustrated fans asking for changes. Coach Jon Cooper, who has led the team to back-to-back lengthy playoff runs, isn't immune to criticism.
There are already #FireCooper hashtags on Twitter, among others.
Cooper doesn't pay attention to that. But he feels fans' frustration.
"I know it's frustrating for everybody," Cooper told the Tampa Bay Times. "You know why? We've won. The standard has been set high and we want to keep raising that standard. And when you do that, expectations rise. Everybody is frustrated. We're frustrated. We know where we've been and want to get back there.
"There's other hurdles that have jumped in our way to get there. We're just trying to fight our way out of it."
It's hard to completely judge Cooper and his staff considering the slew of injuries (hurdles) Tampa Bay has faced. Captain Steven Stamkos, the team's top scorer and leader, has missed 25 games. The team's No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop has been out three weeks. Nikita Kucherov, Anton Stralman, Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle have all missed time. On Sunday, against the defending champion Penguins, the Lightning lineup included five players who spent most of this season in Syracuse. "It's hard to be more consistent when you have an inconsistent lineup," Cooper said.
The biggest issue for the Lightning is goals against (2.98 per game, 25th in the league), including 22 during a four-game losing streak. The team badly needs help on the blueline, which is more of a personnel issue than coaching.
"You can put Scotty Bowman on the bench and it's not going to change the fact they've got gaps on their blueline," said TSN analyst Craig Button, a former GM. "Big, massive gaps."
Those are reasons why it's hard to envision GM Steve Yzerman making a midseason coaching change, especially with Cooper in the first year of a multi-year extension. When asked over the weekend about the coaching staff, Yzerman preached patience.
"It just doesn't happen overnight," Yzerman said. "Unfortunately it takes time to teach and learn and apply it. It just takes time."
Even still, questions remain whether Cooper's message is getting through to players. Injuries or not, the lack of passion or urgency in losses to Winnipeg Tuesday and in Philadelphia Saturday would sound alarms.
Cooper still believes he has the players' ears.
"You're asking guys to do things that are a little out of their comfort zone," Cooper said. "They know what they have to do. But one of the things thas has helped us and plagued us is we like playing the skill game. And it's benefited us a lot of situations and in some situations it's tough. Ultimately when teams are clamping down and collapsing, it's hard to skill your way through."
Jonathan Drouin, whom we all know hasn't always seen eye to eye with Cooper, said "everybody's on the same page." And he sees why coaches want players to adapt this way from their speed and skill game.
"We've been doing it for the past couple years, so teams are used to it now," Drouin said. "The blue collar thing is getting more shots, more traffic. Sometimes we're a little too pretty, too cute."
It could be too late. The Lightning is four points out of the third spot in the Atlantic Division, though Ottawa has three games in hand. Tampa Bay is six points out of the second wild card spot. It's on pace for just 82 points, far off the 97 from last season, and not enough to make the playoffs.
It was this time last season when the Lightning won 20 of 25 games, which it needed to earn a playoff spot. It's hard to see this team doing that, having won back-to-back games just twice in the past two months. Tampa Bay's longest winning streak is four games.
Should this be time for a change?
"That's a question for (Yzerman)," Cooper said. "But we're working with the group we have. Guys are battling. They're trying. You've just got to trust in what we had success in and turn the work a notch up a little bit more and work your way out of it. That's what we're going through.
"Our group believes. And everybody believes in each other. The frustration can be a powerful emotion. And part of growth is learning how to deal with being frustrated."