Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning went into the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the clear-cut favorites. After all, they picked up 128 points during the regular season, which was 21 points more than the team that finished in second place, the Calgary Flames.
So when the playoffs kicked off in April, the Bolts were a heavy favorite in the Round 1 matchup against the No. 8 seed Columbus Blue Jackets. The Lightning had Nikita Kucherov, who led the league in scoring and who eventually won the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. They had three players in the top 12 in scoring and they had Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was named the Vezina Trophy winner.
The Bolts kicked off the playoffs the way you expected them to. They built up a 3-0 lead in Game 1 of their best-of-seven series against the Jackets, but they watched that lead evaporate and they eventually lost the first game. For whatever reason, that stunned them and they were never able to recover.
Yes, there was an injury to their number one defenseman, Victor Hedman. Kucherov also received a suspension during the series. Still, there’s no excuse for a team with 128 points to get swept in the first round.
There’s several reasons why teams fail to live up to expectations, but one of the fingers is usually pointed at the head coach. Jon Cooper, who signed a long-term extension with the team in March, failed to come up with an answer for his team in the playoffs.
At the same time, it’s tough to blame all of the Lightning’s playoff shortcomings on just one person. The quiet whispers questioning Cooper’s future in Tampa were silly. He was never going to lose his job this summer, but that didn’t stop the chatter.
“When you have the amount of points we had, it’s a blessing and a curse, in a way. You don’t play any meaningful hockey for a long time. Then all of a sudden, you have to ramp it up. It’s not an excuse. It’s reality,” Cooper said after Game 4, per CBC. “That’s how it goes. You have a historic regular season, and we had a historic playoff.
“We couldn’t find our game. It’s that clear. For six days in April, we couldn’t find it. It’s unfortunate because it puts a blemish on what was one helluva regular season.”
Now, it’s up to Cooper and his team to find a solution.
The Lightning will surely be placed in the same territory as the pre-2018 Washington Capitals. Before they won the Stanley Cup, the Capitals’ regular season performances were meaningless. It didn’t matter if they finished first, second or third during the season if they didn’t win it all. Eventually they did, but there were years of criticism that came before their title. The Lightning are in the same boat right now.
How can Cooper get even more from this team?
They led the league in goals, they gave up the fifth-fewest amount of goals, they had the best power play, best penalty kill, three players in the top 12 in scoring and they arguably had the best goalie in the NHL. There’s no denying that this group is talented, but as Cooper has to find a way to push the right buttons to get them to another level in the spring.
As he mentioned in the above quotes, playing meaningless games for months isn’t ideal. With the league, conference and division wrapped up, the Lightning had nothing to play for until the start of the playoffs. It sounds like Cooper learned from that lesson and he needs to find a way to challenge the group down the stretch if they’re running away with the league again.
That’s easier said than done, but Cooper’s one of the smarter coaches in the league. He should be able to turn last year’s disappointment into something positive. It also helps that he has a roster loaded with talent.