Lightning's Yzerman open to change, but Cooper's job is safe

Lightning coach Jon Cooper has the backing of GM Steve Yzerman, who is open to trades but says the market is tough.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper has the backing of GM Steve Yzerman, who is open to trades but says the market is tough.
Published Jan. 11, 2017

TAMPA — Coach Jon Cooper led an intense, two-session practice Tuesday afternoon at Amalie Arena, with Lightning players displaying the urgency you'd expect from a team fighting for its playoff life.

If there are any changes made to help turn Tampa Bay's season around, it won't involve the coaching staff or Cooper, who isn't going anywhere.

"I think (Cooper) is doing an excellent job," GM Steve Yzerman said Tuesday.

Cooper's seat shouldn't be hot, not with him leading the Lightning to the Stanley Cup final and Eastern Conference final in back-to-back years. And this season, Tampa Bay (19-19-4) has had to use 32 different players due to a slew of injuries, including to Steven Stamkos, Ben Bishop, Anton Stralman and Nikita Kucherov.

The biggest problem for the Lightning is goals against (2.98 per game, 25th in the league), including 22 during its four-game losing streak. The team badly needs to acquire a defenseman to help dig out of its hole, six points back of the second wild-card spot.

"You can put Scotty Bowman on the bench and it's not going to change the fact they've got gaps on their blueline — big, massive gaps," said TSN analyst Craig Button, a former GM. "When you've got gaps on your blueline and within that group, you get exposed against deeper teams. That's what's happening to the Tampa Bay Lightning."

The Lightning has an elite No. 1 defenseman in Victor Hedman, named a first-time All-Star Tuesday. Button likes Stralman in the top pairing, and veteran Braydon Coburn, but said there's a wide gap between them and the likes of Andrej Sustr, Nikita Nesterov and Jason Garrison.

"Those problems won't go away until another player comes in on the blueline," Button said.

Yzerman is trying but said the trade market is as difficult as he has seen, mostly due to the flat salary cap. And if the Lightning wants to get a top-four caliber defenseman like a Jacob Trouba from the Jets, it's not going to come cheap.

The question remains whom Yzerman is willing to part with to make it happen. Does Tampa Bay have any "untouchables?"

"We have our core and I want to add to that core," Yzerman said. "Over time, your core has to change, that's the reality, you can't afford to keep everybody. They age, they mature. Are players untouchable? Yes. Because I want to build around the core.

"But at some point, to address needs, if there's something really good out there, you're probably going to have to give up something really good in order to do that."

For now, as Hedman said, "it's the guys in the room that have to do it."

The Lightning continued Tuesday to work on defensive zone details, from positioning to one-on-one drills. Tampa Bay's schedule doesn't get easier, with back-to-back Thursday and Friday (against Columbus) before a six-game, 13-day West Coast trip.

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"Everybody's got to check their egos and be honest with one another," veteran center Brian Boyle said. "We have to decide whether or not we want to make a change as individuals or as a team. There's a lot of holes in our game."

Cooper understands the fans' frustration. He realizes because the Lightning has won, it has set a standard. "We're frustrated, we know where we've been and want to get back there," Cooper said.

Yzerman praised Cooper for how he has handled the injuries, the ever-changing lineup. The team is getting healthier, with Bishop potentially playing Thursday or Friday, when Boyle and Coburn could return (Slater Koekkoek was sent to AHL).

"Our team competes really hard, and I think (Cooper) and his staff have done a really good job," Yzerman said. "I like the way we play. I like the style. We've got to improve in some areas.

"The type of (style) our coaches led by Coop want the team to play I'm very comfortable with. We'll get through this and these situations make us all better."