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Forget the contract extension, let’s give thanks for Jon Cooper’s hire

It was almost exactly six years ago that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman took a chance on a minor league coach with an odd resume.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who celebrated his 300th victory in his 500th NHL game last week at Carolina, has agreed to a new multi-year contract, the team announced Tuesday. DIRK SHADD | Times
Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who celebrated his 300th victory in his 500th NHL game last week at Carolina, has agreed to a new multi-year contract, the team announced Tuesday. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published Mar. 26, 2019

TAMPA – The time feels right to pause and reflect on this:

Thank heavens it wasn’t Lindy Ruff.

Let’s be honest now. In those first few days after Guy Boucher was fired toward the end of the 2012-13 season, you were probably hoping Lightning GM Steve Yzerman would turn to Ruff as head coach.

He was, after all, well established. He’d spent more than three decades in the NHL as a player and coach, and he was friendly with Yzerman through Team Canada. Ruff was a known commodity.

Jon Cooper? He was another minor league hot shot with an eclectic resume. Just like Boucher. Surely, Yzerman wouldn’t play such a long-shot hand again.

And yet, six years later, can you imagine a better hire?

No offense to Ruff, who has won more than 700 games as an NHL head coach, but Cooper has helped reshape the Lightning into the envy of the NHL. And now, almost six years to the day after he was hired, Cooper was given a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday.

This wasn’t shocking news. If anything, it was overdue.

Having re-upped Cooper once before during the 2015-16 season, current GM Julien BriseBois had made it clear the team had every intention of keeping its head coach well beyond this season.

By announcing the deal this week, Tampa Bay has left conspiracy theorists looking for new material before the start of the postseason. There will be no speculation that the Lightning might blame Cooper for another premature playoff exit, nor will there be chatter about him seeking riches as a free agent coach should Tampa Bay win the Stanley Cup.

Instead, their fortunes will continue to be intertwined.

And that’s a good thing because this Lightning roster has no expiration date on it. As special as this season has felt, there is no reason to believe Tampa Bay won’t continue on this path indefinitely. The top 14 scorers are all in their 20s. So are the top four defensemen. So is the goaltender.

Cooper, a former college lacrosse player and attorney, already has the longest continuous tenure of any head coach in the NHL. This new contract simply ensures the franchise will keep moving forward with the same voice.

Now it is fair to ask how much credit Cooper deserves for molding a team that is barreling toward some of the most outrageous regular-season records in NHL history.

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Steven Stamkos? Nikita Kucherov? Andrei Vasilevskiy? It’s true, those players would give any coach a head start toward 50 wins. But this is not a team that revolves around stars. The Lightning has made its mark with depth, with tenacity, with accountability.

If you want to understand how disciplined the Lightning has played, you should break the season down into 10-game segments. From October to March there is not a single 10-game period where the Lightning has lost more games than it has won. That’s a rare feat in a league where the regular season often feels like a six-month prelude to the important stuff.

And that’s a tribute to Cooper’s influence in the locker room.

Does that make him the best coach in the NHL? That’s debatable. No one is rushing to call Cooper a genius when it comes to the X’s and O’s of a game.

But he has been smart enough to surround himself with the right assistants this season, and he is charismatic enough to have a diverse roster swearing loyalty to his program.

This season might still fall short of expectations — everything starts from scratch in two weeks — but the Lightning has just assured this train will continue rolling smoothly ahead for the foreseeable future.

As for Ruff?

He was hired by Dallas soon after Cooper arrived in Tampa. He spent four years with the Stars, won one playoff series, and was fired a couple of years ago.

We’ll never know what Ruff might have done in Tampa Bay, but we do know this:

Jon Cooper has made that question moot.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.