A finalist for NHL Coach of the Year and catalyst of Tampa Bay’s surprising 101-point season and its return to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2011, Jon Cooper spent the outset of steamy July at the club’s development camp in Brandon while also ensconced in planning meetings with general manager Steve Yzerman and the Lightning staff.
Hot fun in the summertime with training camp just eight weeks away.
And once Cooper began regaling with stories of his first full season in the league and a recent entertaining trip to Las Vegas for the league awards, we were still chuckling and asking questions well past our promised 15-minute chat.
PAUL KENNEDY: It’s been an amazing first couple of weeks leading into free agency. You retain Ryan Callahan — who many suspected was leaving — your young players experienced their first major paydays with new contracts and you’ve just added defensemen Jason Garrison, Anton Stralman and big centerman Brian Boyle. What’s not to like?
JON COOPER: July 1 is Christmas in the National Hockey League. Players signing deals, teams acquiring new talent. I am happy for our younger guys. We are building the puzzle. The pieces are coming together. The one thing from last year is everyone was buying in. We had to lose some important parts of our core from a year ago, but we have improved the backend. But we had to give up assets to get assets.
KENNEDY: Are you better now than you were at the end of the season?
COOPER: We’re a little young. Or, I should say inexperienced. Guys that don’t have a lot of time in the league. Take Alex Killorn — just over a season in the NHL. Ben Bishop had a great season (Vezina finalist) but this was pretty much his first full year as a No. 1. We may not be completely done (in free agency). We would like to surround our guys with a little more veteran presence. That would be great. I just want to temper expectations. Let’s be realistic. Can we expect Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat to have seasons next year like they just did? I know them well — we will have been together now for four seasons (AHL and NHL). There is something called a "sophomore slump." Will they work hard to prepare? I am confident that they will.
KENNEDY: How was Steve (Yzerman) able to add the players he did?
COOPER: It all begins with Callahan. If we don’t get Cally, then … once he signed, we knew before July 1 how much money we could have to commit to other players. He is a leader, a competitor. Ryan stabilizes our right side. Now we can address our defense. He was our top target free agent. Other players really, really respect him. The ones that are here and the ones that are joining us.
KENNEDY: To that point, Ryan was a New York Rangers captain. You added Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle from that team that just skated in the Stanley Cup Finals. What impact do you anticipate from that pair?
COOPER: First, Cally played with both for a couple of years. We listened to him and he vouched for both guys being first class. He’s been in the dressing room with them, competed day in and day out. He knew them very well. Stralman has a lot of playoff experience over the past two years. He’s a defenseman that can skate. And he’s a right-handed shot. That is 100 percent what we needed. Boyle is a big, savvy veteran centerman. Tall (6-foot-7) and he plays defense. He can be very physical, too, and that helps. And he has scored big goals in the playoffs.
KENNEDY: You also added a solid veteran defenseman in Garrison from Vancouver. I know it’s July, but what’s your early thinking on how you might pair the blueline?
COOPER: Right off the bat, a natural pairing would be the two Swedes, Stralman and (Victor) Hedman. But I need to get into training camp and look for chemistry. See who works well together. We’ve got Matt Carle, Eric Brewer, Radko Gudas, Andrej Sustr — both are very young — but there are a lot of good players back there. Garrison spent a season with (assistant coach) Rick (Bowness) in Vancouver. He’s got a heavy shot and can play in all situations. He’s dependable, kills penalties, can help on the power play. So I’ve got to see them on the ice.
KENNEDY: Did Ben Bishop play nearly the entire season with a broken right wrist? I’ve heard rumors it happened in November — which would make his 37-win season even more incredible. He was playing every night with a cast that no one outside of your locker room knew about.
COOPER: No, it happened after the first of the year. But Bish was remarkable. He will be healthy now, he won’t have a hand problem. He won us a lot of games last season.
KENNEDY: Evgeni Nabokov will be his backup. He will turn 39 later this month. He won the Calder a long time ago. Has been an All-Star and Vezina finalist. Those San Jose seasons were filled with 40-win years. What do you have there? His save percentage with the Islanders the last three years was over 90 percent.
COOPER: He has won a lot of games in this league. he was was a starter, a No. 1 for a very long time (12 seasons). He knows what the situation will be. He will be a great complement to Bishop. We appear very set. We have played against him. We know how good he can be.
KENNEDY: It’s development camp, too. The staff reports there are 31 players in Brandon, including Jonathan Drouin, your first-round pick in 2013, who stayed with the big club until the end of training camp as an 18-year-old last September. Steve has said he’s going to have every opportunity to compete for a roster spot — to make the team this fall. What’s the difference you see 12 months later?
COOPER: Just that. A year more mature. He looks to be in better shape and stronger. He had a boyish look to him a year ago. Now, more of a man. He has game-breaking talent. That said, he’s not going to walk into a building a throw up Crosby-like stats. He’s 19. Take a look a Steven Stamkos. As good as he is it took half a year in this league for him to figure it out, and then he took off. But he can be a very special player.
KENNEDY: How was Las Vegas and the awards show?
COOPER: Four days in Vegas. How can I put this? I slept … barely. I took my family and we celebrated my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary together. Actually, the anniversary was last year but this was the first chance we had to all get together, and it was a lot of fun. We went to see "Jersey Boys," and it was great. There was golf with all the NHL Awards nominees, there were after hours parties, and one day I spent about six hours in the pool. There was a time, I was sitting in my room — high up — with a panoramic view of Vegas, the strip, the mountains. I had a drink and just thought about all that’s taken place over the past 12 months. That was quite a moment.
KENNEDY: So on this July 4 weekend, how does a British Columbia native with a law degree now coaching in the NHL celebrate the occasion?
COOPER: By playing golf with his general manager. That’s where Steve and I will be early in the morning. Teeing it up.