By Jim Bleyer
The Tampa Bay Lightning possess the most talented roster in the National Hockey League.
The Lightning have the NHL’s best goaltender, even the best backup goalie. Victor Hedman is one of the top three defensemen in the NHL. Four rolling forward lines with some of the best snipers in the business: Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point provide a devastating offense.
But closing the deal for the Stanley Cup, the most cherished trophy in North American professional sports, has proven elusive in the Jeff Vinik era. The Lightning owner hired a popular general manager in Steve Yzerman who put together this year’s star-studded cast before departing for “personal reasons” last September.
One should consider the 2018-19 edition of the Lightning as Yzerman’s responsibility, not that of his successor Julien BriseBois. Essentially, the current season is Yzerman’s ninth and last.
Cooper was named head coach in the 2012-13 season replacing the beleaguered Guy Boucher. Tossing out that ill-fated campaign, this season represents Cooper’s sixth.
Former hedge-fund manager Vinik bought the team in 2010 and his responsibility coincides with Yzerman’s, therefore, consider this his ninth season as well.
Rookie owner, rookie GM, rookie coach. Let’s see how that tracks with the Lightning 2004 Stanley Cup champions.
Then-owner Bill Davidson purchased a punch drunk, impotent Lightning franchise in 1999 so the Cup was hoisted in his fifth year. Jay Feaster was promoted to General Manager from Assistant GM in 2002 so he had the top executive job for two seasons when the Lightning snared the Cup.
Coach John Tortorella served three full years when the players celebrated through confetti-riddled Channelside Drive. In each of the four years prior to his arrival, the Lightning lost 50 or more games.
Davidson-Feaster-Tortorella could be described as rookies like their 2018-19 counterparts. Vinik owned a minor stake in the Boston Red Sox; Yzerman served his apprenticeship for GM in Detroit; Torts, like Cooper, had his first NHL head coaching job with the Lightning.
Cooper’s first full campaign was a regular season success with a second place division finish. But when it came to the playoffs, the Lightning were swept in the first round by the Montreal Canadians.
The Lightning lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. In 2016, the Lightning lost the conference final to the Boston Bruins. The Lightning astoundingly missed the playoffs in 2017 and last year were defeated in the Eastern Conference Finals by the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Washington Capitals in seven games.
More on the Capitals series in a minute.
Cooper’s coaching resumé is stellar but it has a hole in it one could drive a Zamboni through: the prized Stanley Cup. Here are some of the gum-chewing fanatic’s achievements:
—-Lightning coach all-time wins leader.
—-Named as head coach of the Eastern Conference for the 2017 National Hockey League All-Star Game.
—-Named to the Eastern Conference coaching staff for the 2018 All-Star Game.
—-Designated as an assistant coach for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
—-Appointed head coach of Canada’s men’s national ice hockey team for the 2017 IIHF World Championship tournament.
At the start of the 2018 season, the Lightning were one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. In fact, they had the same 10-1 odds as the Capitals. As the season progressed, however, it became clear the Lightning were the class of the Eastern Conference if not the entire league.
The Lightning’s 113 points led the Eastern Conference and its +60 goal differential sat atop both conferences.
The series with Washington lasted seven games but it was no contest. Most notable was that the Lightning did not score in an incomprehensible 159 minutes, 27 seconds to close the playoffs. They dropped three of four at home and were outscored 23-15.
The statistics and the optics led the observer to only one conclusion: the Lightning were outcoached. The team could not find passing lanes but that was no problem for the Capitals. Cooper failed to field the most favorable matchups.
Management’s answer to Cooper’s shortcomings was to fire associate coach Rick Bowness and assistant coach Brad Lauer. Bowness coached the defense and probably performed admirably with the personnel he inherited.
After Bowness’ dismissal, the Lightning shored up its defense for the 2018-19 season.
There are no more excuses and the franchise’s window for winning it all is closing. With the exception of Hedman, the team is deep enough to withstand any one player’s injury.
The sands of time are running out. Ice chips are melting. The Stanley Cup is the Lightning’s—and Cooper’s—to lose.