Jon Cooper joined the Tampa Bay Lightning as their head coach back in the tail-end of the 2012–13 NHL season and has yet to win a Stanley Cup. He has been extremely successful in the regular season, but his lack of championship hardware could end his run in Tampa Bay.
After Eight Seasons, Jon Cooper Should Be Cup or Bust
For starters, Cooper is a very good coach. He has a 348-180-50 record with the Lightning over an eight-season span. Because of his success, he was given a multi-year extension last season. In the playoffs, however, he has a 40-34 record, only winning the Eastern Conference once.
Jon Cooper and the Lightning lost in the Stanley Cup Finals in the 2014–15 NHL season. That year Tampa Bay went 50-24-8, finishing second in the Atlantic Division. They led the league in goals scored and finished 11th in goals against. But this team wasn’t nearly as good as the team they slowly built into.
The Lightning boasted a young Steven Stamkos, who recorded 72 points that season, to go along with 24-year-old Tyler Johnson, who also recorded 72 points. Following them was a 21-year-old player in his second NHL season, Nikita Kucherov, who recorded a then-career-high 65 points. The following players recorded over 40 points, along with the aforementioned guys, were Ondrej Palat (63 points), Ryan Callahan (54 points), and Valtteri Filppula (48 points). They were also led by Ben Bishop who, by all means, was a great goalie. However, the Lightning improved in net over time too.
The defense featured Mark Barberio, Matt Carle, Jason Garrison, Radko Gudas, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and Andrej Sustr. That’s… not great, to say the least. Arguably only two of those defensemen are strong options.
Their top-six forward performers, mentioned above, were solid but still young. The veteran forwards who performed at a high level weren’t exactly excellent, but they were solid. Looking at those pieces, on both ends of the ice, makes you wonder a little bit as to how Jon Cooper and this team made it to to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The following season, the Lightning yet again finished second in the Atlantic Division, but lost in the Conference Finals, taking a step back from last season. Kucherov had another great regular season, while Stamkos followed close behind him in points. Hedman stepped up big time on the back end. Bishop had an outstanding season in net despite the offense taking a step back, but overall this team arguably got worse, and finishing lower than the year before wasn’t a huge surprise.
Their defense featured very familiar names, minus Gudas and Barberio. To replace those two defensemen, the Lightning added Nikita Nesterov and gave Braydon Coburn a much larger role. Those two additions didn’t lead to a massive improvement, so it’s safe to say that they didn’t really get better on paper. On offense, after Kucherov and Stamkos, they featured Palat, Alex Killorn, Johnson, and Vladislav Namestnikov. Compared to the year before, you could argue they improved. Yet, they finished 13th, dropping 12 spots in goals scored as a team from last season. Overall, it was arguably a step forward on paper, but finishing worse.
In 2016–17, Kucherov blasted his previous career-high of 66, putting up 85 points. Hedman took an even bigger offensive step, posting 72 points of his own. A young Jonathan Drouin had 53 points, Palat had 52 points, Johnson had 45 points, and rookie sensation Brayden Point had 40 points. Despite the massive contributions from some new faces, the Lightning finished fifth in the Atlantic and missed the playoffs.
While they did lose Stamkos, they had massive contributions and failed to even qualify for the playoffs. This season marked the start of the Andrei Vasilevskiy era. It also was the year the Lightning traded Bishop for a package that included Erik Cernak.
Outside of those top-five scoring forwards, the Lightning also featured Killorn and Filppula. Stamkos only played in 17 games this season, but as seen in the point totals mentioned above, quite a few guys stepped up to help fill the void.
On defense, Coburn, Garrison, Hedman, Stralman, and Sustr were featured prominently yet again. The sixth defenseman spot was rotated between new-comer Jake Dotchin, former first-round draft choice Slater Koekkoek, Nesterov, and the gritty Luke Witkowski. Again, their defense was not great by any stretch of the imagination. But it was still at the very least equal to, if not better than, the 2014–15 squad.
In net, Vasilevskiy led the way with 50 games played, as he slowly took the crease from Bishop which led to the trade. That Bishop trade also included veteran Peter Budaj, who slotted into seven games and did not do well, recording below a .900 save percentage.
In 2017–18, the Lightning bounced back in a big way, leading the league in goals scored for the first time since Cooper’s first full season. Vasilevskiy played sensationally in his full first season as a starter, earning a Vezina nomination. Kucherov had a 100 point season, Stamkos came back and put up 86 points.
Following those two, Yanni Gourde, Point, and Hedman finished with over 60 points, and Johnson posted 50 points. It was also Mikhail Sergachev’s first season with the Lightning after he was brought in via the Montreal Canadiens, and he posted 40 points. The Lightning also added Ryan McDonagh and JT Miller at the deadline. Despite these excellent contributions, the Lightning were yet again stopped in the Conference Finals.
The addition of Sergachev was exactly what the Lightning needed to get their defense on the right path. It’s been their weak point throughout the years, and while Sergachev is by no means elite, he’s better than many of their other options, outside of Hedman. Their defense now consisted of Sergachev, Hedman, Coburn, Stralman, and newcomer Dan Girardi. That’s a far greater d-core than they’ve had in years past by a fairly substantial margin. Adding McDonagh at the deadline bolstered their defense even further.
Their forward core remained almost exactly the same, minus the addition of Miller and the off-season acquisition of Chris Kunitz, who put up 29 points as his career was coming to a close. Jon Cooper and his team pushed but ultimately could not even reach the Stanley Cup Finals, despite being worlds better than their 2014–15 roster.
In 2018–19, the Lightning featured a ridiculously stacked line-up. Vasilevskiy won the Vezina, Kucherov won the Hart after posting 128 points, while Stamkos and Point each posted over 90 points. The young Anthony Cirelli received a much larger role and produced exceptionally with 39 points on the year.
Hedman posted over 50 points, and the entire blueline was stacked. The unexpected rise of Cernak gave the Lightning a balanced roster to compliment, for the first time in a while, their elite offensive dynamos. They won the President’s Trophy and had a historic 62-win season. However, they were swept by an eight seed — in round one — after a historic season. Embarrassment for days and in fact, Cooper should’ve been fired directly following this abysmal playoff performance.
On top of the contributions from relatively new faces like Cirelli, this was Miller’s first full year in Tampa. He played in a variety of roles and recorded 47 points in 75 games. Rookie Mathieu Joseph stepped up to add to the secondary scoring, adding 26 points of his own. Meanwhile, the Lightning still iced those elite top-three scorers, while Johnson, Gourde, and Killorn all recorded 40 or more points.
On defense, quite simply, they were stacked. Hedman, McDonagh, Sergachev, and Stralman were their top-four, but due to Stralman’s injury-riddled year, they looked in unconventional spots to find a solid replacement. To everyone’s surprise, that new top-four guy was Cernak, who they acquired in the Bishop trade. His emergence and incredible chemistry with McDonagh were exactly what the Lightning needed, and he proved he can last in this role for the foreseeable future.
In 2019–20, the Lightning were able to once again throw this insanely talented core onto the ice, but this time Cirelli became a much bigger piece of the puzzle. Though Stralman, Miller, and Callahan left, the Lightning brought in Kevin Shattenkirk, Pat Maroon, and a fresh face in Carter Verhaeghe. Jan Rutta stepped up in a somewhat small role to help keep the strong pairing of McDonagh and Cernak together.
Point, Kucherov, and Stamkos continued to perform at a ridiculously high level, while Palat and Killorn both had strong seasons. If the Lightning somehow doesn’t win the Cup yet again, with a core that was much better than the 2014–15 core by a wide margin, then Jon Cooper’s message clearly no longer resonates on the team, and he has out-lasted his stay here. It should absolutely be a Cup-or-bust run for the star-studded Lightning squad.
Jon Cooper’s Pattern is Clear
Since 2014–15, it is clear that Steve Yzerman was patient but still looking desperately to find some good defensemen to aid Cooper. But once the 2017–18 season played out, it was clear Yzerman was pushing hard and got Cooper the pieces he needed. Instead, it led to an 11-10 playoff record, not counting these playoff games so far.
Jon Cooper has had strong toys to play with on this Tampa Bay roster, with a powerhouse forward core and a dynamic defense core. Not to mention a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist in the net. The time is now for the Lightning to win a Stanley Cup. If not, it’s clear the roster is not the issue — Jon Cooper is.