TAMPA — So now what?
The Lightning has made the change. Guy Boucher is out as head coach. Jon Cooper is in. That, believe it or not, was the easy part.
Now comes the heavy lifting.
Cooper sat in the press box Tuesday night, next to his boss Steve Yzerman, looking down on a team that needs serious repairs. Starting today, Cooper goes about trying to find the duct tape to put on this season, while looking for the cement to build for the future.
It's a delicate balance that even Cooper is trying to figure out.
No one wants to give up on this season, but even Yzerman admits the Lightning is "a long ways away" from being a Stanley Cup contender. Hiring Cooper was meant for the long haul more than the next couple of weeks.
"This isn't, for me, to come in and say, 'Okay, let's make a push to the playoffs' and that's it," Cooper said. "This is going to be a process. In saying that, I don't want this to be a learning curve to get ready for next year. That is not the message at all. This is: I'm the next head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning and I'm here for a while."
So with today being the first day in the rest of the Lightning's life, what exactly is the game plan? Here are the things Cooper has to do right away:
Establish the Cooper Way
First impressions matter, especially for a team searching for — and, quite frankly, desperately needing — a new identity. While Cooper came off Tuesday as a nice guy with a quick wit and an easygoing personality, he needs to immediately lay out how things are to be done under his command. There's a new sheriff in town and he needs to make that clear, even if it is in a soft voice. In case the players need some further reminding, perhaps Cooper can show them the standings to let them know that their way isn't working.
"It's going to take some time to establish the way he wants things done," Yzerman said. "I know he's going to make some changes as to the way we play. This move wasn't made to try and save the season. It's a long-term thing. He's going to come in and go about his business and shape the team and the atmosphere, the expectations, the way he wants the game played, the way he wants things done on and off the ice."
Evaluate his team
Before you can figure out how to use the players you have, you have to figure out what kind of players you have. Let's be honest here: It looked like several players had checked out in recent weeks under Boucher.
Cooper needs to find out if those players have any interest in playing for him. If not, perhaps he can help them find boxes to pack their belongings.
"This is an evaluation period," Cooper said. "We really get to see who is on board and who is potentially not on board and if we have things we need to fix, we have things we need to fix."
Establish relationships with the vets
With so many players who started the season playing for Cooper in minor-league Syracuse now up with the big club, the talk has been how Cooper already knows half the players. But it's the other half that Cooper needs to get to know.
That would be the IMPORTANT half.
Cooper's short-term goals are not going to be met satisfying a bunch of kids who are just happy to be here. Cooper needs to sit down with the leaders of this team, especially Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Victor Hedman.
As long as those players are in Tampa Bay, Cooper's success likely will be dependent on them.
Is the Lightning trying to make the playoffs or build for the future? Will it rely on the veterans or turn to the kids? Is it going to be buyers or sellers before the trade deadline on April 3?
Actually, the answer to those questions shouldn't make a difference to how Cooper coaches the rest of this season.
In the best-case scenario, the Lightning finds the magic switch and turns around THIS season. At the very worst?
"At least you get a head start on the things to come for the next year," Stamkos said. "But by no means are we quitting or thinking about next year."
Cooper said, "Regardless of the way this year turns out, we'll be a better team next year for me being here now."
Cooper can do a little of both: He can start building the future by laying the foundation now. Starting today.