Jon Cooper

Lightning need Nikita Kucherov to shake off benching by Cooper

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Jon Cooper owed Anthony Cirelli some serious gratitude on Tuesday night. After all, the heat would have been on if Cooper benched Nikita Kucherov and the Lightning lost to the squalid Senators.

Cirelli scored a sensational overtime goal to secure a win for the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Ottawa Senators. In doing so, Cirelli bailed out Cooper — to an extent — after the Bolts head coach made that highly questionable decision to bench Kucherov for most of the third period and overtime of that 4-3 OT win.

Even with that narrow victory, Cooper’s coaching decision inspired scrutiny. Some Lightning fans poured over tape to study Kucherov’s body language following the victory.

The mistake that likely inspired Kucherov’s benching

Cooper likely benched Nikita Kucherov because of a turnover that opened the door for this Anthony Duclair goal:

People searched for visual cues of frustration from Kucherov because, for the most part, the team wasn’t very transparent about the benching. Kucherov declined to comment after the game, while Cooper’s response was fairly cookie-cutter.

“As a coach you have to make decisions and what was best for us to win tonight. It was our decision,” Cooper said, via Lightning radio analyst Caley Chelios. “He’s a huge part of our team, it could be anybody.”

How will Kucherov respond?

Yes, Kucherov took too much of a risk in trying to beat multiple defenders before that turnover. Cooper gives off the vibe of being fairly player-friendly, but every now and then, he might push the limits, and this seems to be one of those times.

The decision reeks of scapegoating, so Cooper should tread lightly.

While Kucherov isn’t on the outrageous pace that powered him to a 2019 Hart Trophy, he remains the straw that stirs the drink for Tampa Bay. Looking at underlying metrics such as his 2018-19 versus 2019-20 heatmaps at Hockey Viz, you could argue that Kucherov’s been just as dominant in certain ways:

Floating the argument that this was a risky move by Cooper isn’t so outrageous.

After all, Kucherov’s shown evidence that a fiery temperament that likely drives him to dominate might also push him to bristle at slights. Kucherov lost his cool before the hit that drew a seismic suspension during that Round 1 sweep against the Blue Jackets, and he also griped about the quality of his linemates after a rare season where the Lightning missed the playoffs.

So, in benching Kucherov, was Cooper playing with fire?

For what it’s worth, Steven Stamkos shrugged off such concerns heading into Thursday’s game against the Dallas Stars.

Lightning need to put together some strong stretches

One way or another, the Lightning must start to climb the ranks as this telling stretch winds down.

They’ve won five of eight games during a home-heavy December, which is … fine. Still, their 17-12-3 record (37 points) leaves them out of playoff position today. Four of their next five games are at home, so the Lightning must strike while the iron is hot.

Whether Kucherov was left hot-headed by the benching or not.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Morning Skate: Ovechkin on Russia Olympic ban; tough times in Hockeytown

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Alex Ovechkin on the Russia Olympic ban: “It’s always disappointing to hear something like that. I hope everything’s going to be well. We still have a long time ‘til the Olympics to figure out what to do. What’s better to do. Hope everything’s going to be fine.” [Washington Post]

• USA Hockey named on Monday 28 players to the preliminary roster of its entry for the 2020 World Junior Championship. [USA Hockey]

• As the Senators continue their rebuild, Brady Tkachuk is front and center. [Ottawa Sun]

• Does Taylor Hall fit with the Islanders’ needs? [Gotham Sports Network]

• Things are going not so good in Hockeytown. [TSN]

• The proposed reshaping of the NBA schedule is something the NHL should be thinking about as well. [Featurd]

• Jordan Kyrou, who’s been nearly a point-per-game player in the AHL this season, has been called up by the St. Louis Blues. [Post-Dispatch]

• How a small dip in production for Claude Giroux means good things for the Flyers. [Broad Street Hockey]

• Neal Henderson, head of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, North America’s oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program, will become the first African-American to be enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame this week. [NHL.com]

• Can the Lightning’s issues this season be placed at the feet of Jon Cooper? [Raw Charge]

• Finally, meet Evan Yasser, a Devils fan on the autism spectrum who you might hear calling games some day:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Get ready to learn a lot about the Lightning

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With a cursory glance at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s upcoming schedule, it was tempting to predict that the team will look like a juggernaut again very soon.

After beating the Predators in overtime in an unexpectedly nasty game in Nashville, the opportunity is indeed there to enjoy some home cooking. The Lightning play:

  • Their next three games at home.
  • Seven of their next eight games in Tampa Bay.
  • Could be set for a big December overall with 10 of their next 12 games at home.

Yet, when you dig a little deeper, the situation is even more interesting because a hot streak isn’t necessarily a slam dunk for Tampa Bay. While it’s dangerous to read too much into any month in the marathon that is an NHL regular season, it’s fair to say that we should get a better idea of what kind of team the Lightning might be in 2019-20.

Bumpy start

Chalk it up to a hangover from that jarring sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets, Brayden Point limping into the early part of the season, or any other number of factors, but it’s clear that something’s been a bit off about the Lightning in 2019-20.

It wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect the Lightning to duplicate 2018-19’s regular-season magic, but it’s still jarring that, as of Dec. 4, Tampa Bay is not in a playoff position.

Now, sure, some of that is misleading. After all, the Lightning have only played in 25 games, the lowest total in the NHL. Still, a 13-9-3 record feels closer to a drizzle than a thunderstorm.

It’s a tad bit unnerving that Tampa Bay’s record is closer to “meh” than dominant when you consider that a decent number of things are going right for the Lightning.

Their power play is still humming along with a robust 29.3 percent success rate, third-best in the NHL. Nikita Kucherov isn’t on another 120-point pace, he’s still a dangerous scorer, and the Lightning are getting strong production from Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman (remarkably, 23 points in as many games), and Brayden Point. Beyond the usual suspects, they’re also seeing an even-more-revitalized-than-expected Kevin Shattenkirk (not far behind Hedman with 20 points in 25 GP), and some nice contributions from rising players like Anthony Cirelli.

The Lightning’s even-strength PDO (1.017) ranks seventh-highest in the NHL, a quick reference that indicates that they aren’t suffering from particularly terrible puck luck.

While their goaltending hasn’t been great (Andrei Vasilevskiy and Curtis McElhinney share matching .908 save percentages), it hasn’t been a full-fledged disaster.

So … it’s fair to wonder if this Lightning team might fall closer to good than great. But, again, this stretch will tell us quite a bit about their ceiling — not everything, but quite a bit.

Another look at this home-heavy stretch

Here’s that span of 12 games, with road contests in italics:

Dec. 5: vs. Minnesota
Dec. 7: vs. San Jose
Dec. 9: vs. Islanders
Dec. 10: at Florida
Dec. 12: vs. Boston
Dec. 14: vs. Washington
Dec. 17: vs. Ottawa
Dec. 19: vs. Dallas
Dec. 21: at Washington
Dec. 23: vs. Florida
Dec. 28: vs. Montreal
Dec. 29: vs. Detroit

While the Senators and Red Wings stand as games the Lightning absolutely should win, and there are matches against teams who have been up and down (Wild, Sharks, Stars), it all looks like a set of challenges as much as this is a golden opportunity.

After all, the Lightning are only 6-4-1 so far at home this season, and that’s with that trip to Sweden mucking things up a bit.

***

It’s hyperbolic to say that this is a do-or-die stretch for the Lightning, but it’s still one of the more significant spans of their season.

Consider it the equivalent to an animal storing fat for in preparation for a difficult winter. From Dec. 31 through Feb. 1, the Lightning face what could be a treacherous run of away games: four in a row to begin 2020, 12 out of 15 games on the road. While that set of opponents is softer (at least on paper), it would likely help if they entered that run on a high note.

Do you think the Lightning can take advantage of December to prove that they’re still truly among the elite, or will they continue to face peaks and valleys?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Lightning look to grow game, themselves in Sweden

The Tampa Bay Lightning have not performed at a peak level to start the 2019-20 NHL season and a trip overseas might help them solve a few of their problems.

The Bolts will participate in the NHL Global Series and will play in back-to-back games against a divisional opponent, the Buffalo Sabres in Stockholm, Sweden starting Friday (2 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

“Obviously it’s something I’ve never been a part of,” forward Anthony Cirelli said. “To be able go to Sweden, somewhere I have never been, and see the fans down there, and play some hockey games is pretty cool, pretty special. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

General manager Julien Brisebois has been a part of a few European adventures throughout his experience working in a front office. During his time with the Hamilton Bulldogs, his team went to Scotland for training camp one year. Additionally, while overseeing the Syracuse Crunch organization (Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate), the club went to France.

“It’s a great experience, it kind of broadens your horizons,” Brisebois told NBC Sports. “It’s a great opportunity for some team bonding, spending some time as a group in a new environment and I know Sweden has a huge base of hockey fans and I am sure it’s going to be a rocking building in Stockholm.”

The Lightning will also have a familiar tour guide in Victor Hedman. The alternate captain and defenseman grew up approximately six hours north of Stockholm in Ornskoldsvik.

“Victor is going to kind of be our social director for the players while we are over there,” Brisebois said. “We have a few activities with our fans as we have a number of fans traveling over. Most of the other social activities including our last night in Stockholm, on a Saturday night, I think Victor is in charge of those plans.”

Hedman missed the previous two games before the trip with a lower-body injury and is hopeful he will get the opportunity to play an NHL game in front of Swedish fans.

“Growing up, I didn’t have the opportunity to see the NHL as much as kids can nowadays,” Hedman told NHL.com. “Both TV and obviously us coming over [are] going to help promote them and even more kids, hopefully, can dream of becoming an NHL player. I’m just looking forward to going back there, seeing kids and friends and family in the stands. Hopefully we can make their dreams come true watching an NHL game.”

Aside from growing the game internationally, the Lightning have some growth of their own to do in-house.

“Lots to work on,” Brayden Point said of the team’s sluggish start. “There are definitely some positives we can take from the start of the season, but there are things we need to be better at and things we need to work on. Hopefully this week [in Sweden] we can address some of those things in practice and keep getting better every day.”

From the start of last year’s regular season, the Lightning’s offense clicked on all cylinders and scored timely goals when it mattered most. This year, consistency has been an issue as the team has put forth only a couple of complete 60-minute efforts during a 6-5-2 start.

“That’s when frustration sets in. When you are working so hard and ‘breaks aren’t going your way’”, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the 5-2 loss to the Islanders. “Eventually with the skill set we have up front, we will score some goals.”

While the Lightning understand the importance of promoting the sport and taking advantage of a great opportunity to play in an exotic destination, the top priority remains intact.

“Ultimately this is a business trip for us,” Brisebois said. “There are four points at stake, we need to go out there and get the job done on the ice.”

Lightning battling through early-season adversity

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There is no reason to rush to judgment after 12 games, but the Tampa Bay Lightning have not looked like themselves.

The Bolts escaped the Prudential Center with a wacky 7-6 overtime win Wednesday but have certainly not played with the poise or structure expected of a Stanley Cup favorite.

“We are working extremely hard, it’s not for a matter of will and effort,” Ryan McDonagh told NBC earlier this week. “We are trying to get on the same page here as far as how we want to play, especially away from the puck. We had a lot of things go right for us in last year’s regular season. But this is a new year, we are trying to find a new identity”

Tampa won the 2019 Presidents’ Trophy with ease, earning 128 points and finishing the year with 21 more points than the next closest team in the standings.

While a 6-4-2 record to open the season is not a doomsday scenario, especially with eight of their first 12 games on the road, the Lightning know they are not executing at the level in which they have come to expect.

“We have to find a way to be aggressive within our structure, I think that is when we are at our best,” McDonagh said. “We understand what makes us successful as a group, it’s about going out there and doing it.”

During their Wednesday matchup against New Jersey, Tampa overcame a two-goal third-period deficit when Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph and Ondrej Palat scored within 13:18 of each other to obtain a 6-5 advantage.

But, Kyle Palmieri of the Devils completed a hat trick with eight seconds remaining in regulation and forced overtime. While Tyler Johnson scored the game-winning goal in the extra session, the Lightning need to play a much more systematic style of hockey in order to reach their ultimate goal.

“We can’t get down on each other and let things snowball,” McDonagh said. “Understand at points in the game we need to be simple and safe and when there is an opportunity to strike, try and make it happen.”

Coach Jon Cooper felt his team suffered from their own success last season when they faced adversity for the first time. The club crumbled in their Round 1 series against the Blue Jackets after clinching a playoff spot in early March.

“It’s a blessing and a curse because you don’t play any meaningful hockey for a long time,” he said.

The NHL regular season is an 82-game voyage, and this early skid might end up having a positive impact on the Lightning when it’s all said and done.

“You want to go through some ups and downs as the year goes on, it brings out the true identity of individuals,” McDonagh said. “There is no doubt that we got guys in here that want to push for one another, keep grinding forward and accomplish what we want to accomplish. No doubt in my mind we got the right group of guys in here.”

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.