Lightning's Jon Cooper develops trust in young players

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper on the ice at training camp at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Friday (09/19/14).
Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper on the ice at training camp at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Friday (09/19/14).
Published Nov. 16, 2014

TAMPA — In the waning minutes of a game Sunday with the score tied in Detroit, one of the Lightning's "kid" lines was on the ice. Coach Jon Cooper put three rookies — Jonathan Drouin, 19; Vladislav Namestnikov, 21, and Cedric Paquette, 21, with a combined 38 NHL games of experience — out for a stressful shift against the potent Red Wings with the game on the line.

"He trusts us," Drouin said.

With the Lightning being so young (eight of the 12 forwards are 24 or younger), Cooper has no choice but to lean on some green players. But to Cooper, it's also an important part of the growth process that he believes will pay dividends down the line.

"You have to be put in situations to get this experience," Cooper said. "Just because you pass the driver's test, the written test, doesn't mean you are a good driver. You have to get behind the wheel."

That's why you've seen Namestnikov and Paquette on the penalty kill, or Drouin and Nikita Kucherov, 21, getting time on the power play, as well as shifts in overtime. Defenseman Andrej Sustr was out there Thursday in the final minute against the Sharks after Tampa Bay pulled goalie Ben Bishop down 2-1.

Cooper admits the Lightning showed its youth in losses Tuesday to Chicago and Thursday to San Jose, games that included slow starts. But the growing pains are necessary considering what roles the rookies will have to play in a potential playoff run.

"Sometimes it has to start somewhere," Cooper said. "And I'd rather get this out of the way in Game 15 than Game 82. That's kind of our process. We've got to see if those guys can make those plays."

Cooper did the same thing last year with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, who ended up Calder Trophy (top rookie) finalists. When they went up against Blackhawks top defensemen Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, there might have been more nerves. But when Johnson and Palat started against them Tuesday, it was a much different feeling. Johnson, who entered Saturday leading the Lightning with 18 points, said the biggest difference between this year and last is his increased confidence in making plays.

"It's like, 'Okay, I've been there, seen it, this is not as bad as I thought,' " Cooper said. " 'Now let me do something I was too nervous to do before because I was probably playing the game a little bit not to screw up instead of trying to make plays.' "

But you don't know that until you get behind the wheel.