Jon Cooper walked right into the question. And he knew it too.
Cooper, the coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, was talking about going through the stages in his career that led him to the 2014 NHL Awards as a finalist for the Jack Adams Award. He was talking about doubting himself at each stage, overcoming the insecurity and realizing he can deliver the goods and hang with the best coaches in the business, because right now he is one of them.
"In the big picture this year I feel confident that I belong," Cooper said.
As soon as he stopped talking, the following question came at him fast. It was about the next stage, which has to be winning in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Cooper smiled and laughed, and then he agreed.
He has a .593 winning percentage in the regular season (51-35-12), but he's 0-4 in the playoffs after the Lightning were swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference First Round. He thinks he knows why the Lightning were knocked out in four games -- and it had nothing to do with the fact Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop was unavailable due to an elbow injury, or because star center Steven Stamkos' right leg was still not 100 percent.
"I think we put a lot of emphasis on finishing as strong as we could to get home-ice advantage, and I think at the end we might have squeezed a little too much out," Cooper said. "We laid everything out on the line in the regular season and I don't know how much we had left in the playoffs. That's a learning experience. I thought [Montreal] did a heck of a job of being ready when it came to be showtime. That's a learning experience for us."
Cooper also thinks the Lightning showed their age against Montreal.
They used 25 players in the series, including 12 who never had played in the playoffs before, chief among them Calder Trophy finalists Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. Goalie Anders Lindback only had one playoff appearance before last season.
"We got swept, and we got swept for a reason," Cooper said. "I can't sit here and say we really should have won any of the games. … If anything I'm a little mad at myself with the way we performed. I've got to make sure we're better prepared to go into the playoffs next year."
The last part of the quote is the most important and the most telling. Cooper's expectations for himself and the Lightning have changed drastically in one season. Not only does he now know he belongs, but he knows his team does too.
"You can't be a one-trick pony," Cooper said. "The playoffs should be the norm now."
For as much as he's kicking himself for Tampa Bay's easy and quick departure from the playoffs, Cooper said the fact the Lightning made the playoffs last season was "a massive step" for a team that finished 28th in the League standings in the 2012-13 season.
Anything short of another trip to the playoffs would be a disaster, especially with the additions general manager Steve Yzerman has made during the offseason.
Yzerman bolstered Tampa Bay's young defense corps by trading for Jason Garrison and signing Anton Stralman to a five-year contract. He added size and a penalty-killing presence in forward Brian Boyle on a three-year contract. He signed veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov to be Bishop's backup.
In addition, Jonathan Drouin, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, is expected to make the team out of training camp and should be a preseason favorite to win the Calder Trophy.
"So many people say it's easy to coach a team with a lot of really good players. I say no it's not actually," Cooper said. "I think it's easier to take a team that's not expected to do anything and bring them up than it is to take a lot of good players and have them win a championship. We're at the point now where we have to keep this team where we're at and go above, and that's a challenge.
"I'd be really mad if we're not a better team. I think 101 points, that shouldn't be a barometer for us. … It's about getting to the dance. That's what we have to do, and when we do we've got to win some games."
Burns going back to the blue line
Burns is a defenseman again, just as he was for the first eight-and-a-half seasons of his career. He's moving back to the blue line to bolster a defense corps that will be younger than it was last season following the departures of Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart.
"As a player I have always just said I want to play, and I feel I can do both really well," Burns said of playing forward and defense. "Guys are always [complaining] about more ice time. Well, on 'D' you get it. I like it. I like playing 'D.'"
Burns moved to forward midway through the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season because the Sharks had a surplus of defensemen and were looking to get more punch, not to mention goals, from their forwards. He had 20 points in 23 games, and last season set career-highs with 22 goals, 48 points and 245 shots on goal as a forward, playing primarily on Joe Thornton's line.
Now he's going back to defense as part of the Sharks' attempt at a metamorphosis, which looks like it could remain a work-in-progress unless or until Thornton and/or Patrick Marleau agree to waive their no-trade clauses.
Regardless of what happens with Thornton and Marleau, San Jose's defense corps now features righties in Burns, Jason Demers and Justin Braun, and lefties Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Matt Irwin and perhaps 19-year-old Mirco Mueller, the No. 18 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft.
Predators looking past Neal's discipline history
Nashville Predators forward James Neal plays with an edge that occasionally has led him across the line between what is allowed and what is suspension-worthy. However, that didn't stop Nashville from acquiring him in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins last month.
Predators coach Peter Laviolette said he isn't turned off by Neal's history, which includes two fines for $7,500 and three suspensions totaling eight games. The latest suspension came last season when Neal had to sit out five games in December for kneeing Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand in the head.
"I like the way he plays the game," Laviolette said. "He plays the game hard. He's aggressive. He's competitive. Certainly we don't want him to cross that line, but you'd rather try and take that out a little bit than have to try to find it somewhere. I think we all like the way he plays."
In addition to the incident involving Marchand, Neal was suspended one game for charging Claude Giroux in April 2012 and two games for a hit from behind on Derek Dorsett in November 2009. He was fined $5,000 in March for cross checking Luke Glendening, and $2,500 in November 2011 for high sticking P.K. Subban.
Neal also has scored at least 21 goals in each of his six seasons, including in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season when he had 21 in 40 games. He scored 40 in 2011-12; Nashville never has had a 40-goal scorer. It hasn't had a 30-goal scorer in the past four seasons.
"I like taking players for what they are and what they do. I'm not big on trying to change players," Predators GM David Poile said. "If I wanted to change a guy I probably wouldn't trade for him. There are strengths and weaknesses, a little bit of bad habits or what have you, but I think that's one of the things that make James Neal pretty good, is that he plays hard all the time."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
Lightning coach Jon Cooper discussing forward Jonathan Drouin, who is expected to make the NHL roster this season, one year after being sent back to play another season of junior hockey:
"We've probably been questioned a million times why he didn't make our team last year, but it was a win-win for everybody. Drouin got to play and he was dominant. We had a great season. And now I think he's that much better off and more prepared to come in. There's no question of his talent level and we're really excited to have him."
"I don't think there is going to be that much change. … We're going to play five games against every team in our division and there's a lot of good teams. Even Winnipeg is a team that I think they're going to have a good year."
What are the implications when a team files for arbitration compared to when a player does? -- @31Mires
There is a lot to this, but I hope this covers the basic information you're looking for below:
* If a club takes a player to arbitration (club-elected), the player can decide if he wants a one-year contract or a two-year contract. If a player takes the club to arbitration (player-elected), the club decides on the term of the contract. However, if the player is one year away from unrestricted free agency the term has to be one year. The arbitrator sets the value of the contract.
* In club-elected arbitration, the team has "walk-away rights," meaning it can choose not to sign the player to the contract awarded by the arbitrator if the average annual value of the contract is at least $3.5 million, and the player becomes an unrestricted free agent. In player-elected arbitration, the player does not have "walk-away rights," meaning he has to sign the contract that is awarded.
* In club-elected arbitration, players who made at least $1.75 million last season receive at least 85 percent of their previous season's salary. Colorado Avalanche forward Ryan O'Reilly and Winnipeg Jets forward Michael Frolik fall under this category this year.
O'Reilly earned $6.5 million last season and the Avalanche took him to salary arbitration, so an arbitrator has to award him a contract worth at least $5.525 million. Frolik earned $1.9 million last season, so he's eligible for a contract worth at least $1.615 million.
All other restricted free agents in club-elected arbitration are awarded a contract with a monetary figure equal to or higher than what they earned in the previous season. St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Sobotka ($1.4 million salary last season) is the only player who falls under this category this year.
* Players who file for player-elected arbitration are not eligible to receive an offer sheet.
* A player can take a team to arbitration an unlimited amount of times provided he meets the parameters for being eligible for salary arbitration set forth in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. A team can take a player to salary arbitration only once.
How do you envision the Devils defense looking next season? Does it make sense for Peter DeBoer to keep each of the three rookies paired with a veteran or would it make sense to keep the effective Larsson-Gelinas pairing together for growth? -- @MattSuszko
Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas aren't rookies anymore. They should be part of the Devils' top-six defense group. How the pairings shake out opening night is total guesswork, but that's what I'm here for.
I would expect to see Bryce Salvador paired with Marek Zidlicky, which leaves Andy Greene, Larsson, Merrill and Gelinas. Larsson is the only righty in the group, so there is a balance issue, but DeBoer has options. I like Greene-Larsson and Gelinas-Merrill as pairs. Greene would take the pressure of Larsson, and Merrill's stay-at-home ability would give Gelinas more freedom to join the rush.
Will the Avalanche sign Ryan O'Reilly? Or trade him and put me out of my misery? -- @VDefran
I highly doubt the Avalanche are going to trade O'Reilly even after his contract is settled through arbitration -- and I do think this one is going to arbitration. O'Reilly, no matter the price, is an important player for the Avalanche. He plays big minutes in all situations. If he gets a two-year contract, which makes sense because that bridges him to unrestricted free agency, I can't see the Avalanche trading him in the first year unless they fall apart. It's possible Colorado might try to get something for him in the second year of the contract if they think it will be impossible to re-sign him, but that's too far down the road right now.
What kind of message is Ken Holland sending when he stands pat while other teams sign big names to big deals? -- @MistahWintah
Holland isn't standing pat; he tried to sign a number of players July 1. The Detroit Red Wings were not a choice destination for free agents for the first time since I can remember. I don't understand it either. They have a young, up-and-coming group of exciting forwards led by Gustav Nyquist. Mike Babcock is the best coach in the League in my opinion. They play in a hockey-centric market. They have solid goaltending. They're as stable as any organization in North American professional sports. But for some reason free agents chose to sign elsewhere this year. Holland isn't standing pat. He's making the effort and offering the money.
I've heard a lot of Lecavalier to Nashville talk, mostly from Flyers fans, since the news broke Monday that Fisher ruptured his Achilles tendon while training. I understand why it would be a conclusion most would jump to. The Predators need a center, Lecavalier is a center and the Flyers want to trade Lecavalier. It makes sense, but here's the thing: Lecavalier has four years and $18 million left on his contract and he's regressed for four straight seasons. It's no easier now than it was before to trade him even with the Predators' obvious need for center help. Unless the Flyers agree to retain a significant portion of Lecavalier's salary, why would Nashville take him on when he's 34 years old and his best days clearly are behind him?
Biggest surprise free-agent signing this offseason? -- @Cvancheri
I was convinced Ehrhoff would sign a multiyear contract with the Red Wings, but his one-year contract makes some sense. He is getting paid by the Buffalo Sabres and now he can re-boot himself in Pittsburgh and look for a multiyear contract next summer.
I never imagined Pouliot would get more than a three-year contract after playing with five teams in the past five seasons, all on one-year contracts. It's a risk for the Oilers, but Pouliot meets the metrics they're looking for as a big, experienced who drives possession.
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