Steve Yzerman

Lightning strike twice with Yzerman, Cooper combo

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They don’t have the hardware of, say, Dean Lombardi + Darryl Sutter or Stan Bowman + Joel Quenneville, yet the Tampa Bay Lightning’s front office duo of GM Steve Yzerman and head coach Jon Cooper seem like they have the potential to do something special.

Sure, they both took very different paths to this very intriguing fork in the road, yet both appear bright and nimble enough to do some damage in the 2014-15 season and beyond.

Yzerman: an All-Star as a GM?

It’s true that Yzerman inherited franchise players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman from the previous regime, yet he’s been very forward-thinking in building the team into what many believe will be a contender. The team is currently bursting with young scorers – many of whom were drafted by Yzerman & Co., including late gems like Ondrej Palat – while sporting an enviable array of defensemen and some nice options in net.

Ben Bishop might be “the guy” for now, yet his contract opens the door for 2012 first-rounder Andrei Vasilevskiy to eventually fight for the No. 1 spot. More than a few NHL teams likely envy such flexibility.

Yzerman also made the best of the Martin St. Louis trade situation and made some of the shrewdest signings of this offseason, so the situation looks pretty rosy right now.

A unique take behind the bench

While Yzerman’s name pops out for obvious reasons as a Hall-of-Famer and an executive groomed in Detroit’s front office, Cooper flies under the radar as an underrated head coach.

He took an unusual path to head coaching in the NHL, but that “outsider” perspective might just come in handy. If the NHL follows what seems to be a trend in the NFL when it comes to optimism and open-minded behavior from bench bosses, Cooper could very well be ahead of the curve.

That breath of fresh air feeling seemed apparent even in an early Grantland feature back in 2013:

“One GM told me,” he said, “and I’ll never forget this: ‘The NHL can be toxic and negative. You don’t have that in you. Don’t lose that.’ I’ll always take that with me.”

After going 5-8-3 in an abbreviated stint in 2012-13, Cooper coached the Lightning to a promising 46-27-9 record (101 points) last season, so there’s evidence that he’s on to something, even if his team suffered a first-round sweep.

Big challenges ahead

Naturally, all of these positive prognostications could look pretty silly if the Lightning fall flat over the next couple of years.

Yzerman faces a serious challenge in keeping that young core together once entry-level and second contracts run out; the knives would only sharpen if he fails to keep Stamkos from eventually bolting for Toronto when he becomes a UFA.

Also, as strong as this team looks on paper, the Lightning’s last surge came when Guy Boucher was prowling the bench. It’s easy to assume that everything will continue to trend up when the team isn’t far removed from failures.

… Which brings us to Cooper, aka the guy with inherently shakier job security. Boucher went from media darling to “Where are they now?” features (he’s coaching in the Swiss league) with dizzying speed, so the Lightning need to keep climbing or Cooper’s doubters will multiply.

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This is a fascinating time for the Lightning franchise, as so many signs point up … yet there is so much work to be done. From the look of things, Tampa Bay has the right duo for the job, though.

Stanley Cup Final referees: McCauley, O’Halloran, O’Rourke, Sutherland

BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 13:  Referee Dan O'Halloran #13 holds up a face-off between the Buffalo Sabres and the Ottawa Senators during their NHL game at First Niagara Center on December 13, 2011 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Dave Sandford Getty Images)
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From the NHL:

refs

Pretty veteran crew, including three returnees from last year’s final.

Per the NHL, O’Halloran and O’Rourke will call tonight’s series opener from Consol.

After advancing to Cup final, DeBoer had Sharks fans coming up to him with ‘tears in their eyes’

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 29: Head coach Peter DeBoer addresses the media during the NHL Stanley Cup Final Media Day at Consol Energy Center on May 29, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH — When Pete DeBoer was hired to coach the San Jose Sharks, he wasn’t totally cognizant of how much heartbreak the fan base had experienced throughout the years.

Now he knows.

“First year in the community, I didn’t realize kind of the baggage that was carried around,” DeBoer said this morning ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. “Twenty-five-year season-ticket holders coming up to you with tears in their eyes and crying.”

The Sharks, of course, have never been this far in the playoffs. Prior to this year, they’d made it three times to the Western Conference Final, losing each time.

More painful were the first-round exits. Like in 2009 when they won the Presidents’ Trophy and got knocked out by the Ducks, and two years ago when they led the Kings 3-0 before dropping four straight.

It was only after the Sharks beat the Blues that DeBoer fully realized the “gravity of what they’ve been through” as fans in San Jose, and “how important this is to them.”

Not that he’s satisfied with getting this far.

“The business at hand now is to get off on the right foot, plant the right seeds for this series, impose our game,” he said. “Every series is the same — it’s whatever team can impose their game on the other team the quickest and for the longest. That’s our goal here tonight.”

Related: For Pete DeBoer, San Jose was the perfect landing spot

Kopitar will play for Slovenia in Olympic qualifiers

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 13: Anze Kopitar #11 of Slovenia skates against Russia during the Men's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group A game on day six of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 13, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar will spend part of his offseason trying to help Slovenia qualify for the Olympics.

RTV Slovenia has the story here.

The qualification games will be played September 1-4 in Minsk. Slovenia is in a group with Belarus, Denmark and Poland. The winner of the group will qualify for the Olympics.

The NHL reportedly has no issue with Kopitar’s participation, even though the league has yet to commit to sending its players to Pyeongchang.

Slovenia made its Olympic debut in ice hockey at the 2014 Games in Sochi.

Kopitar will also represent Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup later in September.

Related: Slovenia beats Slovakia for historic win

Zubrus in, Nieto likely out for Sharks in Stanley Cup Final opener

ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 15:  Dainius Zubrus #9 of the San Jose Sharks skates against Alexander Steen #20 of the St. Louis Blues in Game One of the Western Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center on May 15, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH — Matt Nieto is healthy, and ready to go.

But it doesn’t look like he’ll go tonight.

The San Jose Sharks are unlikely to make any lineup changes for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final in Pittsburgh — at Monday’s optional morning skate, Nieto stayed out late with the extras while the guy he’d (presumably) replace in the lineup, Dainius Zubrus, told NHL.com he was in.

Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer wouldn’t reveal any lineup decisions during his morning media availability, instead talking up both Nieto (for his speed) and Zubrus (for his “heavy” game), adding he liked the versatility the two give the club on a night-by-night basis.

Nieto suffered an upper-body injury in Game 6 of the Nashville series, and missed all of the Western Conference Final.

Prior to getting hurt, he had three points in 11 games — this after a regular season in which he scored eight goals and 17 points in 67 games.