Jon Cooper's Lightning season earns a place on big stage

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper at the podium as he talks to the media after an optional team practice between games two and three of the Stanley Cup playoffs at the Bell Centre in Montreal Monday afternoon (04/21/14).
Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper at the podium as he talks to the media after an optional team practice between games two and three of the Stanley Cup playoffs at the Bell Centre in Montreal Monday afternoon (04/21/14).
Published June 22, 2014

TAMPA — As Lightning coach Jon Cooper caught the Stanley Cup final on television, he'd see promos for the NHL Awards show pop on the screen.

"I was like, 'Those would be fun to watch,' " Cooper said. "Then I'm like, 'Gosh, I'm actually going to be in the stands.' That's the surreal part about it."

Cooper, 46, one of three finalists for the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year, will head to Las Vegas today for Tuesday night's ceremony at the Encore Theater. Though the betting odds aren't on his side, behind heavy favorite Patrick Roy of the Avalanche and Mike Babcock of the Red Wings, Cooper said it's gratifying just to be nominated.

"My name is being thrown around with Patrick Roy. He's still a Hall of Fame goaltender in this league. And Mike Babcock … is probably eventually going to be a Hall of Fame coach in the league," Cooper said. "So it's one of those, 'Which name is not like the other?' That's kind of what I am."

Cooper warranted consideration for leading the Lightning to a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference in his first full NHL season. Tampa Bay, which last season earned the third-fewest points in the league, racked up 101 before getting swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Canadiens, an "embarrassing" defeat Cooper said will drive him all summer.

But as confident as Cooper is, having won at every level at which he has coached, the success validated his approach. "In the end, I learned I could handle it," Cooper said. "I always felt I could, but now I know I can. But now just handling the league is not good enough. Now you've got to excel at the league, and that's the next step I have to take as a coach."

Cooper never thought he'd have to handle all the adversity Tampa Bay faced this season, including star Steven Stamkos missing 45 games with a broken right tibia, captain Marty St. Louis forcing a trade and losing goalie Ben Bishop right before the playoffs. There was also Ryan Malone's April arrest on DUI and cocaine possession charges.

However, he thinks the experiences might help his team in the long run.

"There were so many speed bumps along the way. It almost got comical," Cooper said. "It just became expect the unexpected. When we had a quiet day or a couple quiet days, we were like, 'What's going on? What's coming? Something's coming.' "

Wing Alex Killorn said the team followed its coach's level-headed lead. "He never seems to really freak out," Killorn said. "He keeps calm, cool and collected. And obviously, when he does that, it resonates with us. We kind of shared that attitude."

General manager Steve Yzerman said Cooper did a tremendous job, reaffirming what he thought when he promoted Cooper from AHL Syracuse to replace fired Guy Boucher in March 2013.

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"I like the way this team plays. I like the way his teams play," Yzerman said. "We've got a really good coach who is only going to get better through experience."

The Lightning started last season 12-4 before Stamkos slid into a goal post in Boston and broke his leg. "Oh (expletive)," Cooper recalled thinking. "There's no other way to put it.

"That was a punch in the stomach. (And) not only for our team. I thought Steven was playing the best hockey of his career. I didn't expect we were going to lose him for well over half the year."

Cooper said the best thing for the Lightning at the time was having a game the day after Stamkos was injured. It outshot the Canadiens 45-29 in a 2-1 shootout win.

"That's when I was like, 'We're going to be all right,' " he said. "Fortunately for us, we were."

The Lightning went 22-18-5 without Stamkos, surprising many around the league.

"We all could have gone away and nobody would have even cared," Cooper said. "Stamkos going down was a free excuse to not have success during the year. I knew we had a great group when … we were above .500 with­out 'Stammer' here, and that was really gratifying."

When Stamkos returned March 6 against the Maple Leafs, he donned the "C" for the first time. He replaced St. Louis, who was sent to the Rangers the day before to fulfill his trade request.

Cooper could tell St. Louis was hurt Jan. 7 when the 2003-04 league MVP and six-time All-Star was not originally selected for Canada's Olympic team, especially with Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman serving as its executive director. (St. Louis later was named to the team to replace the injured Stamkos, and Canada won the gold medal.)

After two months went by and with St. Louis playing well, Cooper thought there was a chance he would stay.

"I knew there was going to be some pain and some disappointment naturally. That's human nature," Cooper said. "Did I see that he was going to orchestrate his way out of the organization a month later? I don't think I could have forecasted that. I never thought he was going to make that stand that he wanted to leave. I didn't see that coming."

Cooper said he believed everyone, from owner Jeff Vinik to St. Louis — "who didn't mail in any of the games when he was unhappy" — handled the situation as well as they could.

St. Louis got further in the playoffs than his former team. The Rangers reached the Stanley Cup final, where they lost to the Kings. But Cooper said the trade, which netted pending unrestricted free agent wing Ryan Callahan and two first-round draft picks, can't be evaluated until later.

"If we're fortunate enough to sign (Callahan) and you're looking at two first-round picks in the next couple years, I think it was probably a win-win for everybody," Cooper said. "I think Marty got what he ultimately wanted, and I think we got everything plus in return for the situation at hand."

Out of all the adversity, Cooper said what stung most was getting swept by Montreal, calling it "disappointing" and a "little bit embarrassing."

Cooper watched all four games again last week and said, "They weren't that close."

"Our goaltending wasn't good enough. Our defensemen weren't good enough, and our forwards weren't good enough," Cooper said. "And ultimately, maybe our coaching wasn't good enough.

"We squeezed a lot out of the lemon for the 82 (regular-season) games, and we didn't have anything left."

That being said, Cooper said he is proud of what the Lightning accomplished. He said he couldn't have asked for more, other than a Stanley Cup.

"It wasn't our time," Cooper said. "Sometimes you have to lose before you can win. And I think we'll all be better off. It'll be a learning experience."

Cooper was the first to credit the players and coaching staff, acknowledging he wouldn't be nominated for coach of the year without their work.

"I just happen to be the guy," he said. "I'm just a tiny part of what happened."