BRANDON — He walks into a cramped conference room and immediately chooses the seat across from the window. Not much really to see, just a parking lot with some trees in the distance.
But this is what Jon Cooper does. He looks beyond. Beyond the window, beyond the day, beyond the next 82 games.
There was a time when the Lightning were the scourge of the NHL during the regular season. Seemingly every night they would dazzle or dominate. Not anymore. Now, they simply work it. And look beyond.
In the days since the NHL split into divisions and conferences, seven teams have reached the Stanley Cup final in three consecutive seasons. Tampa Bay is the only team to do it without finishing first in its division in any of those seasons.
That’s not coincidence. That’s keeping an eye on the prize. That’s recognizing a perfected process will take you farther than a higher seed.
And that’s understanding that panic is for pretenders.
“The regular season is basically an 82-game dress rehearsal for the playoffs. But you can’t take the regular season for granted,” Cooper, 55, said while relaxing in his socks in a conference room after a recent practice at the TGH Ice Plex.
“We never sit here and think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is our year to win a Stanley Cup.’ We sit here and think, ‘Okay, this is our year to make the playoffs.’ Our sole goal is to get in, it doesn’t matter where we finish. But, while doing that, you are getting your team in order for the playoffs.”
It’s not as if the Lightning are hitting the beach or the golf course during the regular season. Each of the past three years has had its unique hurdles. Steven Stamkos got hurt in 2020. Nikita Kucherov and Stamkos both missed time in 2021. The entire third line had to be replaced in 2022.
The point is, there are reasons they finished behind Florida and Toronto in their division last season. Or Carolina and Florida the year before that. And Boston in 2020. Each year, the Lightning were a little more vulnerable than the year before.
Yet they went on to beat all five of those teams in the playoffs.
Now, maybe, there is a whiff of a veteran team turning the volume up on the dial once April rolls around, but it is also indicative of a team that sees the regular season as a chance to grow rather than shine.
“As time goes on you learn, hey, someone is always throwing something at you. How are you going to evolve? How are you going to find a solution?” Cooper said. “I don’t dwell on problems, I’m always looking for solutions. How can we figure this out? And I think that has boded well for us as a staff.
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“There’s no such thing as a panic button. It’s the solution button.”
Which brings us to today, and what could be the most challenging regular season the Lightning have faced in years. It’s not just that Anthony Cirelli and Zach Bogosian will start the season on the injured list. It’s not just that Ryan McDonagh was traded and Ondrej Palat and Jan Rutta left as free agents.
It’s the accumulation of time. The effects of the salary cap. The inevitable pull toward the middle.
Of the 25 players who appeared in the 2020 postseason for the Lightning, 14 are no longer with the organization. There are more memories in distant locker rooms than in the stalls at Amalie Arena.
When you look at it that way, the Lightning aren’t just replacing McDonagh, Palat and Rutta because they’ve already replaced Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Kevin Shattenkirk and Carter Verhaeghe, among others.
This is a team that needs to find its own identity. Philosophically, it might be a close cousin to the 2022 playoff team, but there will be significant differences that inevitably change the tenor.
The Lightning lost their second-leading scorer from last postseason, and two of their top four defensemen. Can Vladislav Namestnikov replace Palat? Can Philippe Myers and Ian Cole duplicate what McDonagh and Rutta provided? Probably not.
But these are not necessarily meant to be even exchanges. It’s more a question of how they fold into the group and what emerges on the other side.
That means the forward lines will be juggled. A lot. That means finding the right partner for Victor Hedman on the blue line. That means asking Mikhail Sergachev to take on a larger role. That means doing what is necessary to keep Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman and Brayden Point healthy when April finally arrives. And that means not fretting over the inevitable slumps.
Will the Lightning finish first in the Atlantic Division? Hard to see that happening. If Tampa Bay tops 50 wins, it should be a cause for celebration.
But, having said that, would you be shocked if the Lightning were competing for the Eastern Conference title by the end of May?
“We’re a contender, but we’ve got to fill in some blanks,” Cooper said. “That’s the great unknown: Who is going to fill in the blanks? But it’s way easier to do when you have the group of core guys still here. So let’s take these 20 to 23 players and see where we can go from start to finish.
“That’s exciting to me. That’s why I’m in this business. If I wanted to punch a clock and collect a paycheck, I could have been an attorney. For me, every single year the calendar flips, I get excited. I get rejuvenated. To me, right now, I’m like the happiest kid on earth.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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