How Jon Cooper and the Lightning are bucking the NHL trend

Lightning coach Jon Cooper is now the longest-tenured coach at five years. But it wasn't long ago that wasn't that long.
Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper supervises a team practice on Friday (9/15/18) at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon during the team's 2018-2019 season training camp.
Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper supervises a team practice on Friday (9/15/18) at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon during the team's 2018-2019 season training camp. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published Nov. 9, 2018|Updated Nov. 10, 2018

TAMPA – Patience is a dying virtue, and it's as true in hockey as anywhere else.

The Lightning's Jon Cooper is now the longest-tenured coach in the NHL at five-plus years. He was granted that status when the Blackhawks fired Joel Quenneville on Tuesday after 10-plus years at the helm.

It wasn't long ago that 10-year tenures were common and five didn't seem that long, but it's all a cycle.

"It's kind of going back to the days when the NHL stood for 'Not Here Long,' " NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said. "Coaches were fired and hired really quickly back in those days. You can look back to the '80s."

The Blackhawks weren't even the first team to fire a coach this season. The Kings beat them by two days, firing John Stevens on Sunday.

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Cooper, who declined to be interviewed for this story, would say only generally that becoming the longest-tenured coach isn't a good thing when it comes at the expense of someone else in the coaching fraternity.

No coaches were fired during the last regular season, but that's uncommon. All that indicates is teams waited until the offseason to make a move. Six teams hired coaches in the offseason; that's 20 percent of the league. Add the two coaches hired this week and one-quarter of the league has a different coach than it ended last season with.

Barry Trotz, who was in town this week with the Islanders, is one of those newly hired coaches. He went to New York after leaving the Capitals following their Stanley Cup win when he and management couldn't agree on a new contract.

NBC Sports reported that Trotz had been looking for a five-year deal and the team didn't want to grant that given coaches' short shelf life.

As for why teams are quick to fire coaches, Trotz cited parity in the league and impatience. With pressure to win coming from fans, management, ownership and even players, it can be harder to wait it out for long-term gain.

"A lot of times, a little bit of inexperience gives you less patience and you react differently than someone who has maybe been around a long time and seen the ebbs and flows of a season," he said. "All those things are combining to make a lot of changes."

A lot of things can go wrong with a team, so why is it usually the coach who pays first?

"A lot of times, not always, internally (general) managers overrate their team to their ownership," said McGuire, who in 1994 was fired as the Hartford Whalers' coach after six months. "They have a vested interest in having a higher-rated roster. Then the owner asks, 'If our team is so good, why aren't we winning?' The manager says, 'My coach isn't getting things done.' The coach doesn't have the direct line to the owner."

But if you have high-end assets and aren't winning, there aren't many other places to look than the coach. McGuire's example was the Penguins, with the combination of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby being about as high end as it gets.

The Penguins were struggling when they fired Mike Johnston in December 2015 and hired Mike Sullivan. They went on to win the Cup in back-to-back seasons, 2016 and 2017.

That's one of two recent examples of quick turnarounds after a coach was fired that can read like a shortcut for teams looking for one.

After the Kings fired Terry Murray while out of a playoff spot in December 2011, they hired Darryl Sutter. The Kings made the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference and won the Cup. They won again with Sutter two years later.

By the Penguins' and Kings' standards, the Predators almost look like a long-term project. They dumped Trotz, the franchise's first coach, in April 2014 after failing to make the playoffs for two years and hired Peter Laviolette. They made the playoffs the next year and made it to the Stanley Cup final in Laviolette's third year, losing to the Penguins.

Looking closer to home, the Lightning had missed the playoffs four out of five seasons when it hired Cooper in March 2013 after firing Guy Boucher (now coach of the Senators, the Lightning's opponent tonight at Amalie Arena). It has made the Eastern Conference final three times during Cooper's tenure and the Cup final once.

The Lightning is the only team to advance to a conference final three times in the past five years in either conference (the Penguins did it three times from 2013-17, though).

Does that success come from coaching stability? Some, but that's oversimplifying matters. Success and stability are factors of a well-run organization.

"Jeffrey Vinik is one of the best owners in professional sports, maybe the best," McGuire said. "He provides the assets for his organization to survive. He doesn't meddle. "

Additionally, McGuire said, the Lightning has a great scouting staff that has brought in players such as Ryan McDonagh and Andrei Vasilevskiy, even when the transactions seemed surprising.

"If you're looking for how coaches last longer, the owner usually doesn't meddle, and owners usually are told the right answer about the roster," McGuire said.

That's been working for the Lightning.

Contact Diana Nearhos at Follow @dianacnearhos.