Since their inception ahead of the 1992-93 season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have had their fair share of ups and downs. There’s no exception for the coach. Bolts fans have recently been spoiled by Jon Cooper and his 348 wins since 2013. They all remember the glory days of a different man with a common name and similar knack for racking up “W’s.” That man being John Tortorella and his Cup-winning prowess and impressive record. It hasn’t always been so easy, however.
Many Tampa Bay supporters have argued over who the best coach in franchise history really is. The answer? That depends on what criteria you judge a coach’s value by, but, before we get to the age old debate, we must start at square one.
Crisp and company
The Lightning’s bench boss in the beginning was Terry Crisp. Surprisingly enough, Crisp coached the third-most games in Bolts history, clocking in at 391. He also holds the third most wins, though that is mostly due to being the third longest-tenured. Judging by points percentage, he is just sixth ranked out of the nine all-time Tampa Bay head coaches, with a .421 figure.
FUN FACT: Terry Crisp
On April 13, 1996, the Crisp-led Bolts clinched the franchise’s first playoff berth, following a New Jersey Devils loss. They would take two games in a first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The brief tenures of Demers and Ludzik
After Crisp was fired during the 1997-98 season, excluding six games coached by interim Rick Paterson, Jacques Demers took the reigns. Demers, to put it simply, had a very rough go. He owns the worst points percentage in team history for any coach that lasted longer than six games, at .289. His 34-96-17 record was enough to last him only two years behind the bench.
FUN FACT: Jacques Demers
Not even a year after being hired as the Lightning’s second head coach, Demers took over as general manager, and helped mold first-overall pick and eventual superstar Vincent Lecavalier through his first two NHL campaigns.
Steve Ludzik would be the next man to test the waters behind the Tampa bench. The former NHL’er lasted just as long as his predecessor: two seasons, and he had about as much success. Coaching in 26 less games, however, he did rack up 31 wins to Demers’ 34, and slots in one above Demers in the points percentage category. That being said, Ludzik still had the second-worst mark (again, excluding Paterson).
FUN FACT: Steve Ludzik
While Ludzik, an Ontario native, struggled to find consistency, he did have some fantastic moments working with what was then the youngest roster in the league.
While Demers and Ludzig are the two least successful coaches in Lightning history, they were a wake-up-call. A sign that the Bolts needed to put more effort into finding a real, consistent coach that could take control of a locker room. They did that and then-some, finding the man to lead them to the promised-lands. From this next icon onward, it’s been mostly smooth sailing behind the bench in the Bay.
“Known as a fiery — and at times, outspoken — leader driven to get the best out of each player,” John Tortorella was the first ever Tampa Bay coach to have a winning record. By the end of his illustrious Lightning career, ‘Torts’ had a 239-222-74 record and a 2003-04 Jack Adams Award on his mantle.
What’s most important to Lightning fans, however, is the 34-and-a-half pound trophy he hoisted over his head that same season. Tortorella remains the only coach to lead the Lightning to that championship feeling to this day, solidifying his status as a Tampa Bay icon.
FUN FACT: John Tortorella
Promoted to head coach at age 42, the Boston native reached the playoffs in four of his six-and-a-half seasons with the Bolts, and is responsible for the team’s first ever postseason series victory over the Washington Capitals in 2003.
A transitional time behind the bench
Post-Torterella, it wasn’t so easy to find the next man to lead what was a struggling roster. The first attempt at rectification fell on the shoulders of then-ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose. While his tenure was brief, Melrose may hold the title of spiciest hire in team history, as his long NHL career and 12 years on TV gave him celebrity status in the hockey community.
Behind the bench? He didn’t get twelve years to prove himself. Melrose coached just 16 games, and posted a 5-7-4 record. As mentioned, his roster wasn’t stellar. He did, however have the weapons of veteran Vincent Lecavalier, recent number one overall selection Steven Stamkos, and All-Star Martin St. Louis at his disposal. His leash was short, and the Bolts promptly let him go.
FUN FACT: Barry Melrose
Though Melrose was unsuccessful coaching the Bolts, he previously led a Wayne Gretzky-led LA Kings squad to a cup-final appearance in 1993.
Behind only two Lightning legends and one of their more successful coaches, this next coach has the greatest points percentage in team history, at .446. Breaking the trend of terrible two-year stretches, Rick Tocchet coached Tampa Bay for two seasons from 2008-2010.
Tocchet loses major points in one category: he never led the Bolts to a playoff appearance. However, his 53-69-26 record isn’t half bad with the roster he had at his disposal. His replacement when he was let go in 2010, though? He took that team and did immediate damage.
FUN FACT: Rick Tocchet
Tocchet may not have tasted the postseason, but he did taste the satisfaction of helping a player find superstar status. Steven Stamkos struggled offensively in his rookie season, scoring only 23 goals. By Tocchet’s second season, ‘Stammer’ became the third youngest player in league history to score 50 goals in 2009-10.
Boucher renews hope
The Bolts had been experiencing some of the lowest totals in goals-for, as well as seats filled in the Melrose-Tocchet era. It was clear they needed a new leader capable of getting the most out of a rag-tag, yet hopeful roster. They found that leader in Guy Boucher.
‘Bouch’ as he was known, made a stellar first impression, leading the Lightning as close as one win away from playing for the Stanley Cup in 2011, his first season behind the bench. By the end of his 196 game career, Boucher had earned a higher points percentage than Tortorella did, at an impressive .546. There’s no question Boucher is in the conversation for best Lightning coach of 2010-onward.
Whether he tops Tortorella in a broader conversation is hard to quantify, as ‘Torts’ won the Lightning their only cup. Granted, Tortorella was working with an undoubtedly superior group of players.
One thing is certain: Boucher is in a conversation that this next man is already putting himself in. The conversation of best Lightning coach of all time. The problem for the both of them? One qualification missing from the resume: Stanley Cup Champion.
FUN FACT: Guy Boucher
The conference final has been the ceiling for Boucher regardless of what team he is coaching. Following his Lightning years, Boucher led the Ottawa Senators to game seven of the Eastern Conference Final in his first season, where he and the Sens fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins in double overtime.
Cooper helps establish consistency
There is no question Jon Cooper is the best Lightning coach never to win a Stanley Cup. His .645 points percentage is impressive, and he has led a stacked Lightning roster into the playoffs five times. Many thought Cooper’s job was in jeopardy in 2018-19, however. The Bolts won the Presidents’ Trophy on the back of a 128 point season, then fell in four games in the first round of the playoffs to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The two-time NHL All Star coach has led the Bolts to two conference final appearances and one Stanley Cup appearance.
FUN FACT: Jon Cooper
On March 30, 2018, Cooper recorded his 240th career NHL win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The win moved Cooper past John Tortorella for most wins in Lightning history.
Cooper’s points percentage is the best of any Lightning coach, including Tortorella. He’s coached in the most playoff games. He has the most wins. The list goes endlessly on.
Can Cooper overtake Tortorella, though? Has he already cemented the status of Lightning coaching G.O.A.T? That’s up to you, and how much stock you put into a championship win. One trophy would etch his name in for certain.
What’s left to do? Wait… and watch.
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