By Jim Bleyer
It may be the prohibitive favorite (again) to win professional hockey’s coveted Stanley Cup but the 2019-20 edition of the Tampa Bay Lightning are set up for more failure and heartbreak when its season kicks off Thursday.
Thanks to former General Manager Steve Yzerman, the Lightning indisputably possess the most potent roster in the National Hockey League. In fact, the case can be made that’s been true for the past four years but with Jon Cooper as head coach, hope for a Cup celebration in Cigar City lies in ashes.
The 82-game regular season dictates playoff seeding, a meaningless exercise when it comes to Tampa Bay. The team’s continuous underachievement under Cooper has been monumental, culminating in the largest collapse in North American sports history during the 2019 playoffs.
The eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets swept the top-seeded Lightning in four straight games in embarrassing fashion. Columbus coach John Tortorella, who steered the Lightning when it won when the franchise’s lone Stanley Cup in 2004, totally out-strategized Cooper.
In Game 1, the Lightning led 3-0 after one period but lost 4-3. Basically, the Lightning won the first period of 2019 playoff hockey and lost the next 11 to the Blue Jackets and Tortorella. While Cooper shifted his lines like a kid playing hop scotch, Tortorella diagramed a three-dimensional chess match.
The national press not only criticized Cooper’s misuse of a star-studded lineup but also his attitude. Here’s the take from Ant Barberio of Fansided:
“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.”
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 the team’s record-tying regular season record and a previous season when the Lightning allegedly overachieved.
“It’s funny: We’re expected to go far this year, and we go nowhere,” Cooper told the press after the epic fail. “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.”
Cooper ‘s cluelessness behind the bench was also demonstrated during the 2018 playoffs. As in 2019, Las Vegas oddsmakers at the onset of the postseason cast the Lightning as the favorite to win the Cup.
The Washington Capitals beat the Lightning in seven games to capture the Eastern Conference finals and eventually the coveted Stanley Cup. The Lightning astonishingly did not score in the final 152 minutes played against Washington….almost eight periods of hockey or the rough equivalent of 2 1/2 games. Cooper was checkmated again.
Vinik would like to sell the Lightning—he needs liquidity badly—and it would have fetched top dollar if the team matched expectations and won the Cup in June.
Forbes—and other publications—place Vinik’s net worth anywhere from $515-$550 million. Regardless of which figure is used, Vinik personally is highly leveraged because of his $3 billion downtown development, Water Street Tampa. That project is years behind schedule.
At the end of 2018, Forbes Inc. tagged the Lightning with a $445 million net worth meaning the franchise comprises between 81 and 86 percent of Vinik’s net worth. Tampa Bay Beat predicts he will sell the team before the puck drops for the 2020-21 season.
Not firing Cooper after the Washington playoff debacle was Vinik’s initial mistake. Even a street junkie would not have extended Cooper’s contract in February and surely would have fired him after the nationally-embarrassing loss to Tortorella and Columbus.
The owner is paying dearly for not correcting this humongous mistake. With the most talented roster in the National Hockey League, Cooper has been unable to close the deal and it has been incredibly costly to Vinik. By not even qualifying for the Eastern Conference finals, Cooper’s ineptitude has cost Vinik between $70 and $80 million in playoff receipts. The value of the franchise is also undercut with the Lightning’s Stanley Cup window shut as long as Cooper is on board.
Vinik has telegraphed he wants to sell the Lightning. He expected the team would win the Cup when he extended Cooper’s contract. Prospective owners were expected to salivate over having a Cup-winning coach contractually tied to the franchise for years. Now Cooper has been exposed as a liability.
A second Vinik gaffe, nearly on the level of extending Cooper, was to lengthen the contract of goalie Andre Vasilevskiy. If one was inclined to blame one player for underperforming against Columbus, it would be Vasilevskiy who was not sharp in the entire series.
The Lightning’s mind-numbing, first round playoff exit foiled Vinik’s scenario to sell the team at the top of the market. He, like some fans, envisioned Stanley Cup champs with the coach and goalie committed to the franchise long term. Vinik actually created a mess; selling the team won’t be nearly as profitable as he originally contemplated.
Yzerman departed at the end of last season to run the show for the Detroit Red Wings, the team where he stitched together a Hall of Fame career over 23 seasons.
He would have liked to preside over a Stanley Cup winner in Tampa but he left for Detroit after building a perennial contender here over a nine-year span as GM. There’s little doubt he recognized the handwriting on the wall with Cooper at the helm. The inexplicable contract extension bore only Vinik’s fingerprints.