Monday, May 28, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jon Cooper a coach of the year candidate

TAMPA

The Lightning appears well on its way to the playoffs, which is quite stunning when you consider all that it has been through this season.

Its best player, the best goal-scorer in the league, Steven Stamkos, was lost for 45 games with a broken leg.

The anticipated collapse never came.

Its next-best player, its heart and soul, Marty St. Louis, forced his way out of town with a trade that left the Lightning without its captain and leading scorer.

The expected downward spiral hasn't happened.

At one point, nine rookies were jumping over the boards regularly while first-time No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop was standing between the pipes.

The natural growing pains haven't been painful.

Injuries, controversy, kids. How in the world isn't this team bringing up the rear and skating toward a lottery pick?

The explanation: Jon Cooper.

He just might be the NHL's coach of the year.

"There have been so many adverse moments this year that he has really had to keep this group together, especially with how young we've been, too," Stamkos said. "He has been unbelievable."

Cooper, 46, has been on the job one year and three days. He took over a mess of a team that seemed light years away from being competitive.

With the background of a lawyer and the confidence of one, too, Cooper had won everywhere he had coached. So he brought the same laid-back, optimistic, confident style to the NHL and has made it look so easy despite all the roadblocks that should have made it so hard.

"I'm the same person," Cooper said. "I've got the same beliefs. I'm just more experienced now. I guess that's probably the difference. I think I'm still the same coach. I think I have the same feel. I don't know that I would change one thing I've done in the past."

Why would he?

"He has been winning everywhere he has coached, so I wouldn't see the need for him to change at all," said Lightning forward J.T. Brown, who played for Cooper in the minors.

Alex Killorn, another player who made the jump with Cooper from the minors, said, "He has a swagger, but I wouldn't say he is arrogant. Confident, maybe?"

That's the thing about Cooper. He's confident without being cocky. He's self-assured without putting off anybody. As a result, he has managed to gain the full respect of the players, especially his new captain.

"This is the best relationship I've had personally with a coach," Stamkos said. "Just to be able to walk into the room and talk hockey or talk life or talk about the things we need to do as a team, he's open to all of that. You can go talk to him about anything.

"I think that's where he gets a lot of the respect."

Here's a quick little story that says a lot about Cooper: When the alumni of the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup-winning team celebrated its 10th anniversary last week, Cooper was with them every step of the way.

He listened to their stories, soaked in their experiences, embraced their accomplishment.

Honestly, a lot of other coaches would not have done that, preferring to leave the past in the past while selfishly worrying about the present. And don't think the reverence Cooper showed went unnoticed by the former Lightning players.

Now here's the thing: Not only does he respect the former players, but more important, he respects his current players.

Cooper has never taken a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. He is not a know-it-all even though, frankly, he seems to know it all. His best trait might be listening as much talking.

"As a coach, you adapt or die," said Lightning assistant coach Rick Bowness, a former head coach of five NHL teams. "And at this level, you have got to constantly adapt, and Jon has been good at that."

The players love playing for him. He doesn't yell. He doesn't give icy stares. He would never embarrass them. It's common to see him put a player back on the ice immediately after the player has made a critical mistake.

"You see how calm and composed he is on the bench," Stamkos said. "That rubs off on guys during games, especially when you're in tight situations. You stay calm and realize the preparation we have done is eventually going to take over."

Certainly the players have done plenty of the heavy lifting. Before being traded, St. Louis was terrific. You can't tell by watching Stamkos that he broke his right leg in November. And Bishop's play in goal would make any coach look smart.

Cooper might not end up being the coach of the year. Colorado's Patrick Roy is the glamorous name. Ken Hitchcock has been superb in St. Louis. A handful of others might even get more votes.

You need to have followed the Lightning day in and day out to appreciate the job Cooper has done. The season has just been so strange, from the Stamkos injury, to the St. Louis trade, to more injuries, to a bad slump coming out of the Olympic break, to a recent hot streak that has the Lightning in a good spot to clinch just its second playoff berth in six years.

"It's unbelievable that it has been one season," Cooper said, "and the season is still going."

The way Cooper is coaching and his team is playing, that season might be going for quite some time.

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