Maybe it was wishful thinking, listening to his heart, crossing his fingers and hoping, but Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper insists he never had a doubt that captain Steven Stamkos would re-sign this summer despite speculation he would hit the free agent market and say goodbye to Tampa Bay.
"In my heart there wasn't one ounce of me that thought anybody was leaving," Cooper said Monday. "When we have this group, and as close as we are, I never leapt into the thought that we were losing some guys. Deep down inside, I never had a doubt."
Stamkos on June 29 signed an eight-year, $68 million contract to stay with the Lightning, two days before he would have become a free agent.
Then, on July 1, Tampa Bay re-signed defenseman Victor Hedman to an eight-year contract extension worth $63 million, and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to a three-year extension worth $10.5 million. Forward Alex Killorn signed a seven-year, $31 million contract on July 12, and center Vladislav Namestnikov signed a two-year, $3.9 million contract on July 27. Only restricted free agent forward Nikita Kucherov remains unsigned.
"Everybody believes in what we're doing here, how [chairman] Jeff Vinik has structured our organization, how [general manager] Steve Yzerman has handled the hockey operations side of our organization," Cooper said. "It's a trickle-down effect. I know we haven't reached our ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup, but I think that they have created an environment here that if you want to go somewhere to win the Stanley Cup, we think we've got as good a chance as anybody, and this is the place to do it."
Cooper spoke more about re-signing Stamkos; the future of forward Jonathan Drouin, who found himself in the spotlight for the wrong reasons at times last season; and his role as an assistant coach for Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey 2016.
Here are Five Questions with … Jon Cooper:
Understanding that you wished and hoped and believed everybody would return, I have to wonder about your certainty with Stamkos. You went through all of last season with his saga. He could have re-signed at any time, but it goes until late June. He entertained other teams along the way, thinking about moving on before coming to his decision to re-sign. There was rampant speculation. Why were you so certain he'd return, because I don't think Yzerman even was that certain?
"I truly believe that players have earned their right to be unrestricted free agents. Steven Stamkos earned his right to offer himself up and make himself available to all 30 teams. I just truly believe that in his heart he never wanted to leave. In saying that, he earned the right to be able to see what else was out there, but whether he signed last July 1 or this July 1, he still re-signed and we never went a day without Steven Stamkos. In a harmonious world would all be great if he signed last year? Sure, but he earned his right to see what was out there. Just because he didn't sign back right away doesn't mean he didn't want to be here, and in the end it all played out that he really wanted to be here. You can't fault the player for that. Ultimately it's their right to be able to go and exercise their options to see what else is out there. I never fault the player on that."
Was it ever a distraction or a headache with Stamkos and his saga last season because even though he, his agents and Yzerman stayed quiet about what was going on behind closed doors, the speculation was loud and the questions persisted?
"To be honest, it wasn't any of those things for myself or our coaching staff, but I think it was to him. I talked to a lot of players who have been in that situation and it's hard not to think about it. I remember when I was going through this from August to December and you can't help but think when your contract is about to expire, 'Where am I going to be, what am I going to do, am I staying with the same team, am I going somewhere else, do they want me, am I going to be here?' (Cooper signed an extension Dec. 4). There are so many questions that you can't help but let it creep into your mind, so I'm sure it did with Stammer. But he never let on that way.
"If there was one thing that said to me he was coming back, it was his actions in the playoffs. He had been diagnosed with the blood clot and pretty much he was given no chance to come back and play, yet he was with us every step of the way. He was in our locker room. He was pumping the guys up. He was doing everything possible to help us and will us to win hockey games. I'm not so sure that if somebody had one foot out the door they would be doing that."
There obviously wasn't much harmony with Jonathan Drouin and the Lightning last season, but it seemed like all ended well with his performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Does that mean the saga is over and you can anticipate a big role for him this season?
"For us, Jonathan Drouin has always been a big part of this organization since he's been in the organization (the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft). I suppose the way last year went was a learning experience for all of us, but one of the things about our organization and the way things have been done is, we don't give up on players and we don't come in here and say, 'Well, because a player was drafted at a certain level he's expected to do certain things.' Everybody develops at a different rate. This is a really, really hard league, and players like Jonathan Drouin seem to excel at a faster rate than most other players to have success in this league, but everybody was sitting there saying, 'Why didn't that happen on Day One?' Well, this is a pretty darn good league and it takes the best of the best to make their mark. Jonathan Drouin always had the talent, he just had to find his way through the mental aspect of the game. When he figured that, the sky became the limit for this kid. I think if this was a situation where we were giving up on Jonathan Drouin then Steve probably would have traded him, but there is too much in that player. I have to give him a ton of credit because he looked himself in the mirror and said, 'I'm going to be a hockey player.' He proved during that playoff run last season that he's a heck of a hockey player."
What was your message to Jonathan in your 1-on-1 meeting after the season? What was the reaction you got from him?
"Well, the one thing about end-of-the-year meetings is they're just end-of-the-year meetings. After you've been with a player for nine months and you've had a crushing loss that ends your season (2-1 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final to the Pittsburgh Penguins), the last thing they want to do is have the nine-months-and-day-one talk with the coach. The great thing about this group is that everybody is on the same page and they know what their roles are and what's expected of them and the standard. Jonathan is one of the guys that knows what he has to do, and he showed what he needed to do to get himself in the lineup and become the player that we all know he can be. He's still in that development stage (21 years old), but you can tell, especially that last two months he was with us, he had jump in his step and he had grown a couple inches taller in his confidence with himself. It was really rewarding to see, because you never would have wanted to see what the alternative would be, the bad part, if he'd been traded. He knows what's expected of him and what he expects of himself. As I said, we think he's just going to get better from here."
Finally, the World Cup, because you are an assistant coach to Todd McLellan (Edmonton Oilers) for Team North America. What have you done so far for preparation? What will your role be on the staff? How will you sync up with training camp back in Tampa?
"The way I look at it, I'm not going to be at training camp, but so are many other coaches in the League, so I'm not feeling too bad. To be honest, I think it's an unreal opportunity for the coaching staffs of all the teams whose head guys are in the World Cup. Now you get to run a portion of training camp. For us it's a little different because I guess the head guy is the least experienced guy on the staff. For me, I'm really excited for the opportunity because I've never really been an assistant before, so I'm going to have different responsibilities. I'll be on the bench with Todd and I'll be working with the forwards, helping out the power play, but I'm not going to be in the trenches calling the lines and stuff like that. I'm support for Todd, and that will be different for me. We met as a staff at the NHL Draft and went through all of our systems and what we want to do and everybody brought their systems to the table. We were missing Gerard Gallant (Florida Panthers) because he was at the NHL Awards, but it was great to see because everybody was freely sharing all their information and in it together. I really enjoyed that about our coaching staff. Everybody really got along. There was like instant chemistry. I think it's going to be a great experience for me personally, and then to be surrounded with the best young players in the world, you can't really ask for much more than that. The difference is you're chopping off three weeks of the summer, you're adding to an already long season, it's more time away from the family, which is the toughest part, but in the end it's an absolute honor to be chosen to be a part of this. It's something I couldn't pass up."