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.
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.