By Jim Bleyer
Would you reward an employee whose ineptitude cost you well over $100 million?
Of course you wouldn’t but that’s precisely what Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik did when he extended coach Jon Cooper’s contract last March.
Cooper’s contract with the Lightning was set to expire during the summer. Instead of waiting until the end of the season, Vinik gave the coach a multi-year extension and a raise from $2.25 million a season. Less than three months later, the Lightning went into the record books with the most historic collapse in the history of North American professional sports.
When the top-seeded Lightning, 6-5 favorites to win the Stanley Cup, lost in four straight games to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round, between $70 million and $100 million in gate receipts and concession sales evaporated. The Lightning won the first period of the first game, 3-0, then were outplayed in the next 11 periods leading to an embarrassing exit.
Columbus Coach John Tortorella played three dimensional chess while Cooper never advanced beyond hopscotch. Cooper’s playoff ineptitude, however, was tipped in 2018 when the Washington Capitals eliminated the Lightning, Stanley Cup favorites again when the playoffs began.
The 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.
Add another $50 million lost when the franchise failed to advance to the Stanley Cup finals.
Not firing Cooper after the Washington playoff debacle was Vinik’s initial mistake. He needs to sell the team as he is starved for liquidity.
Earlier this year, Vinik borrowed $113 million guaranteed by the income streams from the various revenue sources at Amalie Arena. NHL rules prohibit a franchise being put up for collateral; whether the income streams from the franchise can guarantee an owner’s personal loan is debatable.
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.
Finding a buyer won’t be any easier than coming up with a “reason” for selling the team. Vinik, whose business travails and previous shady dealings as a hedge fund manager in Boston, have never been chronicled in the local mainstream media, is the de facto owner of the Tampa Bay Times.
Deception through false public utterances is the Vinik way. That’s how he and the Tampa Bay Times sold a transit tax last year to an unsuspecting public. Instead of acknowledging a personal financial squeeze, he will choose from the following menu when announcing sale of the team: time to move on from building a once-flailing franchise into a powerhouse; need time to devote to Water Street Tampa; health reasons; family comes first; ad infinitum.
Obtaining the highest sales price for the franchise is a ship that’s sailed. The two biggest reasons for the 2018-19 Lightning crash—Cooper and Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy—were given hefty contract extensions. Now the pair are albatrosses in negotiations with prospective buyers.
Meanwhile, the Lightning Stanley Cup window is slamming shut from a roster standpoint. A porous defense was not addressed in the offseason. An offense-minded defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk, was added instead of a reliable stay-at-home type. Captain Steven Stamkos is getting long in the tooth. Last year’s sensational scorer Nikita Kucherov has been beset by suspensions, injuries, and lower production.
Worse, Cooper has lost the locker room. Players have no confidence in the strategies and lineups promulgated behind the bench. The lack of cohesiveness and intensity has been easily observable this season.
It’s not only sports websites that question the Lightning brain trust and the team’s viability as a Stanley Cup contender. This article in the Wall Street Journal—a publication read by everyone in the tiny pool of prospective sports franchise owners—points to the Lightning’s problems.
But casting the longest shadow is Cooper being outcoached during hockey’s “second season.”
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 with the contract extensions and poor timing; proceeds from selling the team won’t be nearly as much as it would have if the sale occurred last winter or spring.