Jon Cooper, the new head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, sent a clear message to fans during his introductory press conference at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Tuesday night.
“Until the final buzzer goes off in the last game of the season, I'm coming to make the playoffs,” Cooper said.
It was a bold statement from a rookie NHL head coach who has even yet to serve his first game behind the bench.
But, mind you, this is Jon Cooper.
He’s the guy who left his law practice not too many years ago to become a hockey coach. He’s the guy who claimed an American Hockey League Calder Cup championship with Tampa Bay’s top minor league affiliate in Norfolk last season. He’s the guy that took that same team on a professional hockey-record 28-game winning streak. He’s the guy who up until his appointment as Bolts head coach last week had the Lightning’s new AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, leading the league in goals scored and penalty minutes.
“So, to hear somebody say the playoffs are history, well, I don't know,” he added.
He even warned general manager Steve Yzerman, in a jovial way, by admitting, “I’m really going to try to screw up your draft pick.”
With that said, it sounds as if Cooper, 45, has big plans.
He vowed to change the way the Lightning play, but did not divulge any specific details.
But thanks to those who know him well, such as call-up Tyler Johnson and defenseman Keith Aulie, perhaps he didn’t have to.
“He likes to control the pace, and he likes to play a fast, physical brand of hockey,” Johnson said. “He emphasizes having a team-first philosophy and wants everyone to play for each other, so that usually involves being aggressive on the puck and really challenging the other team to beat us.”
Even Cooper himself, along with Cory Conacher, associated their team in Norfolk last season, and again in Syracuse this year, with a certain sense of swagger.
He emphasizes having a team-first philosophy and wants everyone to play for each other, so that usually involves being aggressive on the puck and really challenging the other team to beat us. - Tyler Johnson on Cooper's coaching style
“Last season,” during the Admirals’ incredible streak Cooper said, “it got to a point where both teams would be in the locker room before the game, and we knew we were going to win, they knew they were going to lose, and that was it. It was over.”
However, Cooper added, “nobody would call us a goon team. We play hard, and that’s all I ask, that we play hard and we’re hard to play against. Regardless of what happens, when the fans leave this rink they’re going to be proud of this team.”
But because of the Admirals’ lengthy playoff run last season and this year’s late start due to the NHL lockout, Cooper hasn’t been with the Lightning since the team’s last pre-season training camp in September 2011.
He knows he will have to quickly establish personal relationships, especially with team veterans who might not be as familiar with the coach as many of the young rookies.
“So, that’s where we’re at,” Cooper said.
It just might be, however, the perfect scenario for a coach who Aulie describes as a “great communicator, strong motivator and teacher.”
“He gets everybody to buy in and believe they can win,” Aulie added.
That includes the final 15 games of the regular season, every one of which is more or less a must-win, as the Bolts are just six points out of the eighth and final postseason spot.
But, as Cooper said, “anything’s possible.”