TAMPA — The Lightning continues to be buried under expectations. Nothing is going right. And it's hard not to wonder when, exactly, the worm will turn on Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who has done so much for this franchise. Hard to believe he could be fired.
Then again, losing is losing, and if it carries into next season, well …
Well, well, look who was in town Thursday: the man who preceded Cooper, former Lightning coach Guy Boucher, who took the Lightning to the Eastern Conference Final in 2011, to within two goals of the Stanley Cup Final.
At that moment, who could have seen a season-and-a half later, January 2013, when he was fired after a loss in Ottawa.
"I made a joke at the beginning, I should have just stayed in Ottawa," Boucher said.
Boucher is back in the NHL, in his first year as Ottawa Senators head coach. The Senators are in a playoff position, eight points ahead of Tampa Bay, which is near the bottom of the league. Thursday night was his first trip back to Amalie Arena since he was fired.
"Some paint has changed in the corridor and a few other things, but it's good to be back," Boucher said.
It didn't end well here for Boucher. He was a good guy, but he was demanding and too rigid and stubborn in his first NHL job. It wore down his players and eventually Lighting general manager Steve Yzerman.
But remember that first season, Boucher's NHL rookie season, when the Lightning came from nowhere to the brink of the Cup final.
"It was very special," Boucher said. "First of all, we weren't supposed to do it. No one thought we could do it. We ended up playing Pittsburgh, so no one gave us a chance. We came back from 3-1, so there was a lot of character there that was displayed there. After that, we met the best team in the league, Washington, so everybody thought we'd get crushed. And we beat them in four. That was special. Then we ended up playing Boston. Six minutes left in Game 7 and it was still scoreless.
"By that time we had injuries and guys were starting to wear down. But I still remember the push and everything guys were able to give us. It was real special. I think at that moment we gave hope back to the organization and the fans. That's what I remember – the hope."
Boucher is only 45. He coached SC Bern in Switzerland, winning a league title, after he left the Lightning. He stepped away even as his name was mentioned for NHL jobs.
"But for a family, the NHL is tough," Boucher said. "It gives you a lot of great things, but having young kids and a wife, she was alone very often with the kids. We decided as a family and I wanted to give back to my wife. She gave up her dreams for mine. We went to Switzerland, because half her family is Dutch, and they live there. We wanted our kids to live something different. It was great for the family, to be home every night. There were a lot less games. We traveled so many places in two-and-a-half years. Italy. Paris. Amsterdam. South Africa. Germany. In terms of experience, we needed that experience, to step back, but I kept growing as a coach."
And he thinks he has learned something that will help him this time around.
"I think coaching in the NHL now is about the big picture, it's a big machine," Boucher said. "What I've learned is that there's a big portion of the stuff that you don't put your energy in, you learn this is not as important, I'll delegate this, I'll keep this for myself. I'll put my energy where it matters most. And I think that's what your second gig gives you, a step back, and knowing what you need to handle and what you don't."
Guy Boucher, delegating.
Guy Boucher winning.
That I believe.
Ottawa is 26-16-6, despite goaltender Andrew Hammond missing games due to injury. Boucher has this team on its toes.
"A ton of structure," Senators defenseman Mark Methot said. "At the start of the season, especially training camp, it was a lot of hard work, a lot of skating. I think we've adapted very well. A ton of structure. Lots of meetings. He's very meticulous with how he delivers his speeches, how intense he is behind the bench. He's very demanding and it's good. We needed that in this group and it's paying off."
Sounds like the old Guy to me.
This wasn't Boucher's first return trip to Amalie since he was fired. He was in the arena in 2015, when the Lightning played the Red Wings in the playoffs early in Tampa Bay's run to the Stanley Cup Final. He sat in the stands.
"I didn't come down," Boucher said. "I just hid."
Thursday was different.
"I wouldn't say it was a rush of emotion," Boucher said. "It was such a great experience, it was so positive, socially, here with the people in the building. Besides the fact that you were fired, I left with unbelievable memories, how well I was treated. So, to me, coming back, it just brings a great smile to be back here."
Things fell apart quickly after the 2011 postseason run.
The following season, in fact.
"It was difficult the next year, but we had lost a lot of people. We couldn't say we were rebuilding, but that's what was happening. The young guys weren't ready yet. We knew that. It was going to be one or two more years before those Johnsons and Palats. You could see them coming. … That probably was the toughest, looking back, knowing where this organization was going and to eventually find out you won't be there."
He was asked about Yzerman and the organization.
"People want to hear nasty stuff and bitterness," Boucher said. "It's the total opposite. I guess I got that from my dad. Don't look at how things end, remember how they started. Steve Yzerman gave me my first job in the NHL. He treated me with the upmost respect. We had an unbelievable four years here. That's what I remember. The people in the organization were terrific. Other than the day I got fired, this was all amazing."
Nobody saw that day coming.
Not during the playoffs in 2011, anyway.
2011 was special.
There was hope.