Jon Cooper a long-term bet for Lightning

TAMPA, Fla. — Steve Yzerman’s bet on Jon Cooper is a safe one, certainly, but time will reveal whether it’s smart. If anything should be learned after the Tampa Bay Lightning’s departure from the Guy Boucher era, it’s that caution can never be in short supply.

After all, Boucher commanded optimism two years ago after leading the Lightning to 103 points and within one victory against the Boston Bruins of reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Coaching can be a fickle profession. Behind the bench, positive vibes only last as long as they are replicated.

Still, Yzerman, the Lightning’s vice president and general manager, knew he could not risk losing a rising star in Cooper — who, with Tampa Bay drifting, was promoted to head coach Monday, one day after the team announced the firing of Boucher.

The former American Hockey League coach for Tampa Bay’s affiliates in Syracuse, N.Y., and Norfolk, Va., became too much of a commodity to let walk. Cooper, 45, received interest from the Washington Capitals last summer before the Southeast Division rival hired Adam Oates. In a later year, perhaps another franchise with a vacancy might not have passed.

On paper, this is a savvy move by the Hall of Famer Yzerman. He locks up an asset within his organization — Cooper had a 133-62-26 AHL record — while trusting that the former defense attorney’s methods will translate to a larger stage.

“There were so many things I wanted to do,” Cooper said of his opener, after the Lightning’s 5-4 shootout victory over the New Jersey Devils on Friday at Tampa Bay Times Forum.

“Then I was like, ‘What am I doing? This is Game 1. There’s time to put all this in. I don’t want to information overload the guys.’ I kind of simplified things a bit. But it was when everybody left for warmups … and I was all by myself in the coach’s room. Then I felt it, ‘Wow, I’m nervous.’

“But as soon as the puck drops, all of the sudden, you’re in your element.”

Outlooks always appear limitless at their start. That’s not bad or wrong or naive, and it’s not limited to the NHL. In life, we like to envision that a journey will lead to a desired destination. We like to believe that a path will include no tension, no conflict, no wrong turns.

It’s wise to remember that reality is muddy, complicated. Careers aren’t made after one game, one week, or as the Boucher era showed, one season. Results can change. Success can be fleeting, and more times than not, it is.

Still, for the Lightning, this is a moment for optimism. Players praised Cooper after the initial practice under him Thursday, pointing to his laid-back leadership style as a plus. The session ended with winger Martin St. Louis celebrating with Victor Hedman after the defenseman’s winning goal in a shootout competition. Yes, there was a shootout competition.

Certainly, a few grins are good during a season in which the Lightning entered Friday’s game six points behind the New York Rangers for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot. (Remember, they began the season 6-1.) Cooper has said he wants to players to breathe easily and feel free under his guidance. In turn, he hopes that ethos extends to the ice.

Will it? That’s the puzzle. That’s Cooper’s test this season and beyond.

“You come to the rink and when you’re winning, you’re having fun,” Lightning center Steven Stamkos said. “That’s the only way his approach is. He hates losing. When we come to this rink, the last couple practices, guys are having fun out there. We know what we have to do. We know the parameters. We know the boundaries. You have to respect that and be accountable. But you’ve got to have fun when you’re out there.”

The read on Cooper has only begun, but he seems to have the right approach early. Boucher’s firing Sunday, following a loss to the Ottawa Senators the night before, was a jarring moment for the franchise. Yzerman said the move wasn’t made with securing a playoff berth in mind.

Still, Boucher’s departure is a flashpoint for everyone in the franchise: There’s urgency to reach the postseason for only the second time since 2007. A countdown is on — 14 games remain after Friday — and each will hold considerable weight. There’s little margin for error.

This is where Cooper’s influence can prove valuable. He has spent his coaching career as a molder of talent, shaping players in developmental environments. (He coached nine current Lightning players in the AHL.) He honed a number of traits that could be resourceful under his new title: Patience, vision, awareness of a long-term plan. His presence behind Tampa Bay’s bench can be one of authority, yes, but also one spent nurturing others while sharing a vision. The past can be his greatest asset for the future.  

“He makes sure that guys are having fun and like coming to the rink,” Lightning center Cory Conacher said. “He makes sure guys want to wake up and come to the rink. He set that atmosphere right when we walked in the door the other day. He let us know that this is our job, but at the same time, it’s a fun job. We play a game, so let’s have fun with it.”

Cooper’s presence with this loose direction, though, is no guarantee that the Lightning will rally to make the playoffs. The area where they must improve most is obvious: They entered Friday ranked No. 23 in the league in goals-against average, surrendering 3.00 per game. They have two of the game’s most dynamic offensive forces — Stamkos (46) and St. Louis (43) were third and fourth in the league in points, respectively, after Friday’s victory — but they have struggled to mount a threat in the Southeast Division after the strong start. They are a skilled team. They are also flawed.

Building under Cooper will require a process. It will take patience. If approached with care, though, change can come.

That’s the most important point to remember about Yzerman’s bet on Cooper. The early returns are positive. But in these early hours, they are incomplete. The identity of this new day won’t be known for some time.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.