Jon Cooper has pushed so many of the right buttons during the Tampa Bay Lightning’s quest to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. So the Lightning coach has likely already reminded his players what he told the media on the eve of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Montreal Canadiens in Montreal on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
“There’s a long way to go,” Cooper said Sunday before contemplating what Tampa Bay is on the verge of achieving.
The Lightning are one win away from sweeping the best-of-7 series and becoming the second team since the NHL introduced the salary cap in 2005-06 to win back-to-back championships, following the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017.
Cooper would also earn some of the “street cred” he talked about Sunday by becoming the sixth coach since the 1967 NHL expansion to win the Stanley Cup in consecutive seasons, joining Mike Sullivan (Penguins 2016, 2017), Scotty Bowman (Detroit Red Wings 1997, 1998 and Montreal Canadiens 1976-1979), Glen Sather (Edmonton Oilers 1984, 1985 and 1987, 1988), Al Arbour (New York Islanders 1980-1983) and Fred Shero (Philadelphia Flyers 1974, 1975).
As talented as the Lightning players are, they know Cooper is also one of the reasons why they are in position to make history.
“He’s confident,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said, “and that’s something that has always spilled over to the teams that he’s coached and probably why a lot of them have gone on to be champions, including ourselves.”
Before Cooper coached the Lightning to their second championship last season, he also won titles with St. Louis in the North American Hockey League in 2007 and 2008, Green Bay in the United States Hockey League in 2010 and Norfolk in the American Hockey League in 2012. Norfolk won an AHL-record 28 straight games in the regular season and went 15-3 in the playoffs on the way to winning the Calder Cup.
Cooper was confident then too, but the 53-year-old acknowledges he’s come a long way in his nine seasons coaching in the NHL with the Lightning.
“I’m a much more experienced, seasoned, better coach than I was then,” Cooper said. “I think when you build a team, you coach a team, you stick to your core values. Those have not changed for me. I know what I believe in and what I’ll keep to me, but just learning the dynamics of other coaches, other teams. You’re in the NHL and it’s the best of the best here and you’re just hoping to keep up. So I’ve learned a ton from other coaches, watching other coaches, and then from the game.
“And the longer you’re around and you see tendencies in the game and things that you think you can improve on. It just takes time. I guess that’s why it’s called experience.”
Through experience, and from knowing Tyler Johnson since they were together in Norfolk, Cooper recognized that Johnson was a better fit playing center, his natural position, on the fourth line after having him fill in for the injured Alex Killorn at left wing on the second line in Game 2 against the Canadiens. Tampa Bay won 3-1 in Game 2, but was badly outplayed, so among the adjustments Cooper made for Game 3 on Friday was shifting Johnson back to the fourth line.
Johnson responded by scoring two goals in a 6-3 victory.
“He’s obviously grown as a coach since he’s been here in Tampa,” Stamkos said. “But he’s always maintained that expectation that guys go out there and play with kind of what’s got them to this level. And you’ve seen everyone who has come into our lineup has played with that confidence and it shows on the ice.”
Cooper has also learned there’s a fine line for coaches when trying to get the most out of players. Some coaches might have chastised Blake Coleman for his defensive-zone giveaway that led to Anthony Beauvillier‘s overtime winner in Tampa Bay’s 3-2 loss to the New York Islanders in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals.
Cooper went a different direction and recalled after Coleman scored a remarkable diving goal in Game 2 against Montreal that he told the third-line forward, “Don’t you dare lose a night of sleep over your turnover” and reminded him, “You are one of the straws that stir the drink for this team.”
Coleman responded by playing a strong game in a 1-0 win in Game 7 against the Islanders and has been one of the Lightning’s best players in the Cup Final with three points (two goals, one assist) in the first three games.
“In the end, it’s not about the coach, it’s about the player, and you’ve got to show some empathy for things,” Cooper said. “They’re not trying to screw up and when they do, you’ve got to guide them through it. The game is as much mental as it is physical and when the guys are feeling good about themselves, their play is improved. So there’s a balance there.”