For one or two glimmering moments, it was all sunshine. It was all rainbows and lollipops for Jon Cooper. Just four years ago, he was a young man taking his wife and young children to movies pregame. All a ritual for his thriving Lightning as they made a push to the Stanley Cup Final.
A year ago, the Lightning had a made their third Eastern Conference appearance with Cooper. It was also just 2015 when the Cooper-led Bolts gave the Chicago Blackhawks all they could handle in that six-game Stanley Cup Final. How quickly can the tides change? Flash forward to today, on the heels of a four-game sweep to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Round 1 and fans are calling for his head. Crying. Yelling. Desperate. Confused. Let’s hold our horses here, because Cooper isn’t going anywhere. Yet.
In the modern-day NHL, regular season results mean little. That’s amplified in an era with the most parity the league has ever seen. Florida Panthers coach Joel Quenneville is an exemplary choice to back up the mantra of “What have you done for me lately?” Quenneville was the longest-tenured coach in the league at the time of his firing from the Blackhawks. Three Stanley Cups. Out the door in Chicago after two first round losses, a playoff miss, and a bad start in 2018-19. One more early round-exit, and the Lightning organization will ask Jon Cooper “What have you done for me lately?”
For Cooper, that’s a lengthy answer. But one number rings like a chorus. Zero. Zero cups. If Cooper doesn’t look like he has this team playoff ready early on in the season, don’t be surprised if the Lightning pull the trigger and make a coaching change before it’s too late.
That being said, Lightning general manager Julian Brisebois has consistently reaffirmed his faith in Cooper, and may trust him to battle through early season struggles, despite any grumbling from Lightning fans.
Things could really go one of a handful of ways for Cooper over the next 12 months.
What if the Lightning win another Presidents’ Trophy?
If the Lightning played with their usual firepower and energy in the first round of this year’s playoffs, they’d have been alright despite the injuries and suspension to Nikita Kucherov. Who’s to say this Bolts team couldn’t have won the Stanley Cup? Who’s to say next year’s Lightning can’t win it?
The Lightning played at an angry pace this year, setting team and NHL records. If they continue to do that next season, there’s simply no reason to fire Cooper. It’s difficult to judge a team based on their playoff triumphs while the regular season is in effect. If the Bolts have another Presidents’ Trophy season, Cooper stays. That is, until the puck drops on next year’s playoffs in what will be a pivotal moment in Cooper’s career. One where the he’ll be judged solely by the Lightning’s playoff performance.
What happens if they exit the playoffs early again?
Depending on how next year’s playoffs go, they could be the end of Jon Cooper’s tenure in Tampa Bay.
All season long, Tampa Bay was praised for their depth. Their next-man-up-mentality. What was the one thing that ultimately was their downfall in round one against the Columbus Blue Jackets? Exactly that. Their lack of production from their depth when the stars couldn’t get going.
Therefore, it would make a great deal of sense for the Bolts to shake things up at a position they have a wealth of depth at. Brooks Roland details it all below:
— The Scrum Sports (@TheScrumSports) April 18, 2019
If Cooper can’t get the same secondary scoring he got all season long yet again in the dance next season, he could be as good as gone. Realistically, anything less than a Conference Final appearance is a disappointment with this roster. A second round exit, and it becomes very interesting. However, as previously mentioned, Brisebois is all in on Cooper. His leash might be longer than we thought. A second round exit could probably still signal the end, but it’s no guarantee.
A summer of change falls on BriseBois’s shoulders.
The one thing everyone is waiting for BriseBois to do is make a splash. A big move. Something that blows the Ryan McDonagh signing out of the water. If the Lightning listen, and shake things up by bringing in a proven playoff performer, or even just a veteran presence in the room, maybe Cooper gains ground. With the fans. With the brass. Maybe, just maybe, he gains a Stanley Cup as well.
For example, Vegas trade deadline acquisition Mark Stone has six goals and ten points in SIX playoff games in the desert.
Mark Stone: “These are the type of games you want to be playing in as a hockey player. If I wasn’t having fun, I’d probably still be in Ottawa” #VegasBorn
— Justin Emerson (@J15Emerson) April 18, 2019
Point being, a change of scenery can do a lot not only for the player moving, but the team he joins. BriseBois might need to make a statement move to help his coach out, whether it be this summer or at next year’s trade deadline.
Dealing with failure this season and moving forward.
There’s also the chance Cooper and Lightning owner Jeff Vinik sit down and have a real chat. One that accomplishes something. A real conversation about the future of the franchise. Losing in the playoffs just isn’t good enough with a team this talented. If the Lightning continue to do it, their roster might look very different over the next couple of years.
Due to the salary cap crunch, change is inevitable. When you’ve just had one of the biggest collapses in the history of professional sports, everything needs to be talked about. With that said, don’t expect any big names to move. Steven Stamkos isn’t going anywhere. Neither is Nikita Kucherov and neither is Victor Hedman or Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Is Brayden Point safe? Yes. He’s a player who’s established himself as a force in the NHL. The concern with Point is whether or not an offer sheet from other comes from another team due to Point’s status as a RFA. There hasn’t been an offer sheet in the NHL since Ryan O’Reilly in 2013. Could this summer break that streak? If an offer sheet comes Point’s way, it means nothing if he doesn’t actually sign it himself.
With some roster moves on the horizon and a cap crunch looming, this team’s window is still very much open. But if Cooper and his staff can’t get something done in 2020, we could potentially see a major shifting of the tides. Maybe a complete retool of the faces of the franchise? A new era?
Cooper has embodied what the Lightning have been about for years. With a stunning first round sweep, that’s now up in the air. Stay tuned, Tampa Bay. This is it.
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