Lightning needs a conscience, not a new coach

Commentary: His body of work in Tampa Bay far outweighs any possible stumbles the coach made in a historic first-round loss to Columbus.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper addresses the media during a news conference Thursday at Amalie Arena in Tampa. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper addresses the media during a news conference Thursday at Amalie Arena in Tampa. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Published April 18
Updated April 19

TAMPA — Someone has to pay, right? That’s part of the deal.

When success fails to meet expectations in sports, there must be a fall guy. You fire the coach, you trade the star, you ease the general manager into an early retirement. Tradition demands nothing less.

So who, then, is going to pay for the greatest of Stanley Cup Collapses?

I’ve got to say, Lightning coach Jon Cooper makes for an inviting target. He’s too mellow. Too cerebral. And he always seems to trip on Lord Stanley’s doorstep.

So it’s settled. We have a head, and we have a silver platter.

Except ….

Do you really want to blow this thing up?

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Should seven days in April erase six years of success? Because that’s what’s at stake here. Barely a week ago, Cooper was a puck savant. He’d won as many playoff games in the previous five seasons as any coach in the NHL. He’d led the Lightning to a 62-win regular season.

He’d been behind the bench as players such as Tyler Johnson, Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Erik Cernak grew from relative obscurity to NHL stardom.

“There’s a recency bias to all of this,” general manager Julien BriseBois said Thursday. “You can say ‘Coop’ has lost his last six playoff games, and he has. But we tend to forget everything that happened leading up to that.

“We can’t overreact to a small sample size. When the season starts next year, we’re going to be icing a really competitive team. No one is going to be saying ‘Oh, Tampa has no shot.’ Tampa Bay is a playoff team. It will be a contender again.”

He’s right.

And, as angry/sad/disappointed as you are today, you know it, too.

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I’m not saying Cooper is without flaw or without blame, particularly in the horrors that transpired in the past week. He failed this postseason. That is beyond contestation.

If you believe Lightning players did not execute against Columbus, you can blame Cooper for not having them ready. And if you believe the Lightning was thwarted by the Columbus game plan, you can certainly blame Cooper for not adjusting quickly enough.

But if you are suggesting Tampa Bay owner Jeff Vinik fire Cooper because he’s fallen a handful of wins shy of the Stanley Cup too many times, I’ll argue that is flawed logic. That’s like using Cooper’s past successes as a weapon against him.

Close to 90 percent of the teams in the NHL would happily trade their past six seasons for what Tampa Bay has done under Cooper. That is also beyond debate.

“I don’t think any one player cost us the series,” BriseBois said. “And I don’t think the coaches cost us the series. I think collectively we all didn’t do a good enough job.”

He’s right about that, too.

But there’s a bit of a danger in that explanation. For all the talk about falling short, no one is stepping up to accept responsibility. That may be my biggest problem with Cooper and his stars this morning.

There is not enough personal responsibility in that locker room. Oh, you’ll hear vague suggestions from players that they must get better, or Cooper will talk about reviewing his strategies.

But the reality is too many of these guys hide from accountability. They are too coddled and too comfortable. Someone needs to call out Kucherov for his tired shtick. Someone needed to scream about complacency during Game 2. Someone needs to occasionally bring rage to the party.

If that’s not Cooper’s style, then the Lightning needs to find the right player this summer who has both the personality and the resume to serve as this team’s conscience.

The answer is not wholesale changes. This team is too talented and too young to blow up. And the answer is not getting rid of Cooper. He is one of the reasons Tampa Bay is the envy of most franchises.

We’ve spent much of this spring talking about the way this team was chasing history. Well, here’s a final history lesson that should not be ignored:

In the early days of NHL expansion, the St. Louis Blues reached the Stanley Cup final three consecutive seasons. And for three consecutive seasons they lost in a sweep.

It wasn’t long before they had a new coach behind the bench.

Nearly 50 years later, the Blues have never again gotten back to the Stanley Cup final. As for their coach who lost in the final in three consecutive sweeps?

Two years later, Scotty Bowman won his first Stanley Cup as a head coach in Montreal. He would go on to win a record eight more.

Contact John Romano at [email protected]. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.

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