By Jim Bleyer
By getting swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Tampa Bay Lightning not only broke the hearts of local hockey fans but punctured a huge hole in owner Jeff Vinik’s wallet.
If the Lightning, who tied a regular season National Hockey League record with 62 victories, had simply performed as most pundits projected—playing in the Stanley Cup finals—it would have meant a probable 13 home playoff games. The team played two before it was so ingloriously eliminated.
The difference is enormous, especially for half-billionaire Vinik who ranks as one of the least wealthy owners of North American professional sports teams.
At the full 19,000 plus capacity for each home game at a conservatively estimated $130 a ticket on the direct market, the loss is $2.5 million per game or $27.5 million in gate receipts.
Throw in $50 a head for concessions and souvenirs. That’s another $950,000 per contest.
The woefully underachieving Bolts cost their owner approximately $38 million in gross receipts.
That doesn’t include the diminished value of the franchise.
Forbes magazine in December estimated the Lightning’s worth at $450 million. Winning a Stanley Cup with a core of young stars would have increased that value. If Vinik wanted to sell under those circumstances, he would have done so at the top of the market. That hardly holds true now.
But here’s the real problem: Vinik witlessly extended the contract of playoff-clueless coach Jon Cooper two months before the end of the season. Barring an expensive payout, the franchise is saddled with Cooper who has been outcoached every time the Lightning appeared in the post season.
This year’s monumental collapse follows on the heels of last year’s elimination by the Washington Capitals when the Lightning were held to no goals in the final 159 minutes, 27 seconds, almost eight periods of hockey. That was almost as astounding as this year’s first round sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Cooper was clearly outcoached by Barry Trotz. Lightning players were consistently out of position. Washington had unfettered passing lanes while the Lightning had trouble moving the puck past defenders. Tampa consistently lost the 5-on-5 battles.
After the obvious mismanagement from behind the bench in the 2018 playoffs, Tampa Bay Beat last May wrote “The Case for Firing Jon Cooper.”
This season the gap between the Lightning’s regular season and the playoffs was even more pronounced. Tampa not only tied the NHL win record, but never lost more than two games in a row, The Bolts boasted three 40-goal scorers, one of the league’s top three defenseman, and a regular goalie with a career year.
The talent meant zip. Former Bolts coach John Tortorella had his Blue Jackets checkmating nearly every Lightning move. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov could barely twitch without being smothered.
Cooper had no answers. It was like a chess game between Bobby Fischer and Gomer Pyle.
The enormity of what many are saying is the most epic cratering in the history of pro sports can’t be overstated. No winner of the President’s Trophy (most team points in a season) has ever been swept in the first round by the bottom seed. The chances of that reoccurring are as remote as Vinik financing a project out of his own pocket.
Cooper has coached six NHL seasons, all with the Lightning. Upon getting his contract re-upped, he remarked that he had no intention of ever headcoaching in any other NHL city. He’ll never have the choice.
He did lead the Lightning’s affiliate Norfolk Admirals to an American Hockey League championship prior to his being named coach of the parent club. Obviously his ceiling is minor league.
As for Vinik, the buck—or in this case the lost $75 million plus—stops with him. With every speck of evidence laid out before him, the former hedge fund manager invested unwisely.