By Jim Bleyer
Yeah, I know, the body isn’t even cold.
But the Tampa Bay Lightning’s loss in the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday to a clearly inferior group of skaters is a call for immediate action.
The blame for the latest deep playoff failure falls squarely at the feet of avid gum chewing, well-liked, attorney-cum-head coach Jon Cooper. The series against the Washington Capitals may have gone the seven-game max but the Lightning were thoroughly beaten. The on-ice talent was the reason the Bolts were able to take it to the limit.
At the start of the 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 best team in the Eastern Conference.
That was the regular season. Then came the pesky playoffs, the scene of Lightning brownouts in three of the past four years. Last year, the team severely underachieved with a ninth place finish in the conference. Las Vegas obviously agreed.
Remember, there is no sentiment in business, politics, or gambling. Sports has a tinge of all three.
Cooper was named head coach on March 25 (for those born on that day, life is magical) 2013, mopping up a dismal season after Guy Boucher was dismissed. Cooper’s first full campaign was a regular season success with a second place division finish. The Lightning were swept in the first round by the Montreal Canadians, beginning Cooper’s hallmark Underachieving Era.
In the next four seasons, with a ton of talented skaters and overachieving goalies, Cooper led the team to the Stanley Cup finals once and the Eastern Conference finals twice.
Going into the 2017-18 season, the Lightning had a young, top tier goalie; four rolling lines led by All-Stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, but a questionable, defense headed by Victor Hedman whom I consider the team’s most valuable player.
General Manager Steve Yzerman remedied the defensive gap by acquiring Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers. McDonagh provided depth in case of a Hedman injury which would have smothered any Stanley Cup aspirations.
The regular season, per usual, was great. The Lightning’s 113 points led the Eastern Conference and its +60 goal differential led the entire league.
Then the playoffs. The Lightning ousted New Jersey and Boston with five-game series victories in the first two rounds. With home-ice advantage, the Bolts forged on to the conference finals against the Capitals with the cocky Russian sensation Alex Ovechkin.
The series 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 eye test (I attended one of the home games) proved an eyesore. Players were out of position. Washington had unfettered passing lanes. The Capitals were able to clog lanes when the Lightning played in their zone.
The Lightning’s regular season penalty killing was weak but it lost the 5 on 5 battles against Washington.
It all adds up to a coaching problem. Washington had an answer at both ends of the ice. The Bolts looked baffled and impotent most of the series.
The Lightning’s Cup window is very narrow, probably one more season. The defense, in particular, is aging. If a player is anywhere near NHL ready from minor league affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, that would be earthshaking news. Yzerman faces salary cap issues and expiring contracts.
If Cooper performed the same way in his prior profession as he has as Lightning coach, he would present an airtight case to the jury and blow the summation.
Only potential playoff opponents and the Wrigley company would miss Cooper if he were ousted.
Time for a change.