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Mishkin’s Musings – Learning the Cooper Lexicon

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

In one of his first press conferences as head coach of the Lightning, as a partial response to a question about his coaching style, Jon Cooper said, “All coaches probably view the game just a little bit differently.”

What he meant was that while all coaches may be seeking the same destination – fielding a winning team and competing for a Stanley Cup – they may differ on how to reach that destination. This may be reflected in a team’s style of play. Is a team oriented more on playing a physical game? With speed? Is a team focused on puck possession to generate chances? Or is its offense predicated on counter-attacks off turnovers?

Even if two coaches feel similarly about how a team needs to play, they may express it differently. To that end, every coach I’ve ever known has his own particular lexicon, or vocabulary. Within that lexicon are certain words or catch-phrases that reflect how that coach sees the game.

For example, former Lightning head coach John Tortorella often referenced “the team concept.” He would happily say, after a game in which the team played the way he wanted them to play: “We really played within our team concept.” He was usually at his angriest after a game in which “we got away from our team concept”, even if the result was a win. To Torts, playing within the “team concept” was the best way to ensure long-term success. (I’m guessing it still is).

One of the most interesting parts of working with a new head coach is learning his lexicon, which gives us an insight into how he views the game. And consequently, how he coaches his players. Even though Cooper has only been head coach of the Lightning for a week and a half, already he has given us an idea of his lexicon.

This column isn’t long enough for me to get into everything he’s talked about, so I’ll give you a single subject today. Cooper talks repeatedly about “building good habits”. What does he mean?

Here are two examples of areas that have been problematic for the Lightning at points this year and Cooper’s take on them.


Let’s make one thing clear. If a player passes up a shot, opting instead to make a play to a teammate, and that play results in a goal, we don’t call it “overpassing.” We call it a “great play”. Look at Steven Stamkos’ pass to Alex Killorn last Friday against the Devils that yielded the tying goal with 15 seconds left. That was a great play, particularly because New Jersey was expecting Stamkos to shoot the puck, which left an open net for Killorn on the other side of the ice. But let’s say the Stamkos pass bobbled off Killorn’s stick, the Devils intercepted, cleared the zone and won the game. Some might then bemoan the fact that Stamkos didn’t shoot in that situation. So defining “overpassing” can be tricky.

Certainly, though, some of the Lightning players, at their own admission, have been guilty of passing when they could have shot the puck this year. This has occurred on odd-man rushes and on the power play, in particular.

When asked about the overpassing conundrum, Cooper responded: “Let’s say (this player) overpasses eight times out of ten. We’ve got to get that number down to, let’s say, five times out of ten.” Cooper conceded, though, that “you’re never going to get the number to zero.” That’s because, as he explained, these players are the best in the world for a reason – that they see the ice in a unique way. But by instilling “good habits”, he believes, overpassing will become less prevalent. More shots will get to the net, resulting possibly in a goal or a rebound chance in front.

Breaking Out Of The Defensive Zone:

If there’s been one issue that has dogged the Lightning this year, it’s been struggling to break out of their own end.

Clean defensive zone breakouts are especially important to Cooper. At a media session following the Devils’ game (one in which the Bolts at times were pinned back in their own end by New Jersey’s forecheck), Cooper was asked what parts of his system he was looking to implement right off the bat. He responded: “It starts in our own end. That’s where it starts. If we can start breaking out of our own zone clean, which is really what we’re trying to do, and work on our D-zone, the rest will take care of itself.”

He continued: “Clearly, New Jersey did a great job pre-scouting us because they took away all the options we were looking for. Everything was going up the wall and we kept going D to D (back) to D. Eventually that’s going to wear on you and we couldn’t get out. So we had to adjust in the second and third periods on how we’re going to get out of the zone. The longer you play in your zone, the more tired you get and the less time you have to play on offense. All of a sudden now, you’re dumping pucks just to get a change and you’re giving it right back to them and here they come again. So if you get out quick and you get out clean, now you can play offense and hopefully you can do the same thing to them. Wear them down in the offensive zone.”

His next statement was similar to his take on the overpassing question. “It’s not a perfect science. But instead of coming out clean (only) 30 percent of the time, you come out clean 60 percent of the time. Then, in the times we’re in trouble, cut our losses, and just get pucks out.”

As with overpassing, Cooper is looking to instill good habits regarding breakouts, such as avoiding turnovers just inside or outside the blue line, having good communication between the players on the ice, and designing different options for the guys so that they can adjust to whatever forecheck the opposition throws at them.

At the same time, Cooper is a realist. It’s not ever going to be perfect. This is not a unique position for a coach. Hockey is often referred to as “a game of mistakes.” It’s hard, almost impossible, to play a mistake-free game. But how Cooper expresses this truism is unique, by using percentages to explain how he hopes to get the club where it needs to be. (Maybe other coaches speak this way, but I’ve never heard it before.)

In one of his other media sessions, Cooper said he wants his team to be “boring”. “Boring wins,” he said with a chuckle. In using the word “boring”, he wasn’t implying that the Lightning players wouldn’t play an exciting brand of hockey. Rather, “boring” really meant reliable. Players become reliable when they have “good habits”. In time, the Lightning will become a team that operates within those percentages he referenced, and is reliable in making the right decisions at crucial points on the ice.

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