By Jim Bleyer
Former hedge fund manager turned sports franchise owner Jeff Vinik continues to ply his trade in stocks: laughing ones.
Vinik’s Tampa Bay Lightning, overwhelming 9-5 favorites at the outset of the recently-concluded National Hockey League playoffs, continue to be the butt of standup jokes and snide remarks following a historic choke in the opening round.
The last-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets swept the Lightning four straight games in embarrassing fashion. Columbus coach John Tortorella, who stood behind the bench when the Lightning won the franchise’s only Stanley Cup, totally out-strategized his counterpart Jon Cooper.
The Lightning have been low-hanging fodder for standup routines in comedy clubs throughout North America. Barry Petchesky at Deadspin on the above Kenan Thompson remarks at the NHL awards ceremony:
“The room loved it! Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Jon Cooper even forced smiles and chuckles, the sort of reaction meant to show how not-mad they are but which actually shows they’re furious.”
If Cooper was furious, it is the most emotion he has shown all year. National sports columns have made much of Cooper’s non-motivational, phlegmatic approach. One example:
“It’s quite obvious the Lightning underestimated Columbus, but that doesn’t excuse their lack of motivation. Who should have been motivating their team after that stunning game one upset? It should have been their head coach Jon Cooper, but he mostly idly sat by and watched.” —-Ant Barberio, Fansided.
There was also criticism of Cooper’s post-playoff remarks where he was seen to be avoiding responsibility for the debacle. He even attempted to balance out the epic fold by citing an overachieving season (when the Lightning still failed to win the Stanley Cup):
“It’s funny: We’re expected to go far this year, and we go nowhere. In 2015, no one expected us to go anywhere, and we went far, with the same core of players. It’s hard to win in this league.”
The hockey world has found the Lightning story riveting as well as riotous as it has become abundantly obvious that Cooper continues to be out-coached when the season really counts. The best personnel in the sport has never been playoff ready under Cooper’s watch.
Last year should have provided a clue. The Washington Capitals beat the Lightning in seven games to capture the Eastern Conference finals and eventually the coveted Stanley Cup. The Lightning did not score in the final 152 minutes played against Washington….that’s the equivalent of 2 1/2 games for those keeping score unless you’re a Lightning fan who has given up on the practice.
Vinik made a triple screwup. He refused to approve Cooper’s firing following the Washington debacle, extended Cooper’s contract in February, and now stubbornly won’t dismiss him.
The owner is paying dearly for not correcting this humongous mistake. By not being able to close the deal with the best skaters in the NHL, Cooper has cost Vinik tens of millions in gross receipts and merchandising. The value of the franchise is also undercut as the Lightning’s Stanley Cup window is shut as long as Cooper is on board.
The Lightning are 6-1 favorites to win the Stanley Cup in 2019-20. Tampa Bay Beat has a standing $5,000 wager that the Lightning will never win the Stanley Cup as long as Jon Cooper remains as head coach. It must be during his current continuous tenure no matter how long that lasts. Neither Vinik nor anyone else has expressed faith in Cooper for that measly amount.
The national sports media had a field day with the Lightning dumpster fire:
Local fans have been more forgiving than independent observers but impatience has surfaced on call-in talk shows and column comments.
Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and general manager Julien Brisebois seem intent on perpetuating losing playoff hockey. Their answer thus far to a monumentally underachieving season: trading J.T. Miller, a talented two-way forward for draft picks and a minor league goalie.