One more win, and you walk among the legends.
This has been Jon Cooper’s message to his players all season. Putting your name on the Stanley Cup is one thing, but winning two in a row is entirely different. In the last 30 years, only three teams have pulled it off and they’ve been led by names such as Lemieux, Yzerman and Crosby.
It’s a smart, simple gimmick on Cooper’s part. It cuts through all the other noise and provides a simple motivation to players who had already climbed the mountaintop. The idea is that this postseason is what will separate you from almost everyone else.
But shouldn’t the same thing apply for the coach?
If the Lightning win any one of the next four games against the Canadiens, Cooper will be joining some elite company when it comes to NHL coaches. Forget the back-to-back novelty, in the last half-century only seven coaches have won multiple Stanley Cups.
And fewer still have done it as quickly and efficiently as Cooper.
Among coaches with at least 410 games in their career (the equivalent of five full regular seasons), Cooper’s points percentage of .647 is second only to the legendary Scotty Bowman. Not bad for a lawyer with almost zero name recognition 10 years ago.
By now, even casual hockey fans know the story of a college lacrosse player who went on to work on Wall Street, then became a defense attorney and eventually landed a job coaching a woebegone high school hockey team in Lansing, Mich.
But what is becoming clear is that Cooper’s background is not a novelty but rather an asset in the locker room. He’s not a screamer. He’s not blustery. He’s not going to pretend to be something he is not. What Cooper, 53, does well is articulate and motivate.
“He’s just got a great way of communicating things in layman’s terms, not trying to get too caught up in analyzing things,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “You guys hear enough of him in the media, he’s got good quote after good quote (and) analogies and trying to put things in perspective. It’s no different with our group. You can paint a picture black-and-white and be pretty specific and analyze things, but he does a great job of keeping that message positive and keeping the message coming in different directions.
“We know he’s going to set our team up for success when he’s breaking things down X’s and O’s. Ninety percent of the time though, it’s about our attitude and mindset.”
That’s an assessment that Cooper would probably endorse. He can out-scheme you on a given night — and there was evidence of that in the first three rounds of this postseason — but he did not get this job because he was a ground-breaking tactician.
Cooper manages people. He teaches, he delegates, he needles. He emboldens and he encourages. Yes, he stands in front of the white board with a blue marker, but that may be the least important thing he does.
The bigger picture is building a culture and a chemistry, and that’s something Cooper has been doing since he was winning titles in the AHL, the USHL and the NAHL before arriving in Tampa Bay.
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“He’s confident, and that’s something that has always spilled over to the teams he’s coached. Probably why a lot of them have gone on to become champions, including ourselves,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “He expects everyone in the room to do their job. The accountability is huge from the coaching staff to the players, and from the players to the players.
“But at the same time, he wants guys to do what they’re best at and be confident doing that.”
Just two years ago, there were Internet warriors who were calling for Cooper’s head. For all of Tampa Bay’s regular-season success, they continually fell short in the playoffs and Cooper became an easy target as the guy with no NHL pedigree.
To be fair, some of that was justified. The Lightning may have had an incomplete roster in some ways, but it was Cooper’s responsibility to hide those flaws and create something greater than its parts. He didn’t in 2019. He has the past two seasons.
Of course, it’s easy to say Cooper is winning with the NHL’s best roster. To suggest it is a breeze to coach when Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Brayden Point are in your lineup.
But that argument ignores the past MVPs and Vezina winners sitting at home in other markets today. It ignores the other teams that eclipsed the salary cap, as the Lightning did, with the long-term injured reserve list. It ignores all the pitfalls that have kept the Canadiens, the Maple Leafs, the Rangers, the Flyers and other historic organizations from winning a Stanley Cup the past two decades.
The story is no longer about Jon Cooper’s unusual journey to the NHL.
One more win, and it’s all about what he’s done since he arrived.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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