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.
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"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.
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."
Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy discussing the competition in the Central Division, which featured five playoff teams last season:
"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."
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."