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No Jack Adams (again) but Jon Cooper’s fingerprints are all over Lightning’s run

Scotty Bowman has won more Stanley Cups (nine) than any coach in NHL history.

Nobody has won more games.

But in Bowman’s three decades behind the bench, he won the Jack Adams Award (given to the NHL’s coach of the year) just twice. Did that mean Bowman wasn’t deserving other years? No.

It’s the curse of coaching a championship-level team, something that the Lightning’s Jon Cooper has found out. Cooper has won two Stanley Cup championships and is the longest-tenured coach in the league, but has been shut out of the annual award, voted on by a panel of NHL broadcasters. He’s been a finalist twice (2013-14 and 2018-19).

“It’s hard for a winning coach to win,” Bowman said, “because you’ve always got somebody that brought a team up, or started over.”

This is not an indictment on this year’s Jack Adams Award finalists, announced Thursday: Florida’s Andrew Brunette, Calgary’s Darryl Sutter and the Rangers’ Gerard Gallant. All three lifted teams beyond preseason expectations.

But shouldn’t there be credit, too, for managing to keep an elite team elite? The Lightning, coming off back-to-back championships, entered the year with the weight of history on their backs. And after losing their entire Yanni Gourde line, plus Tyler Johnson and others, they were near the top of the Eastern Conference standings for a good part of the year. That was with Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point missing an extended period with injuries in the first half of the year. They’re now up 2-0 in the best-of-seven second-round series against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers.

“To me, it’s an unfair thing because people are like, ‘Look at the team he gets to coach,’” said former NHL coach Rick Tocchet, now a TNT analyst, who won back-to-back championships as an assistant with the Penguins. “I’m sure other coaches say the same thing. And I think it’s bullshit. I was in Pittsburgh with Mike Sullivan, and as much as you have a great team, good players, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done when you have that type of team. The pressure is immense. You have a lot of different egos, a lot of pieces of the pie you have to split. Coop has done an unreal job to keep them motivated.”

A perfect example of that was during Thursday’s Game 2. The buy-in and sacrifice was prevalent from the Lightning — with 24 blocked shots by 13 different players, and five players headed down the tunnel due to injury. It was up and down the lineup, from captain Steven Stamkos setting the tone to deadline acquisition Brandon Hagel hobbling off at one point after taking a slap shot off the leg. The Lightning staved off elimination in the first-round series against the Leafs, winning games 6 and 7.

Cooper has said the main challenge in coaching an elite team is knowing when to push and when to pull back.

“The biggest thing is, you can’t let them get complacent,” Bowman said. “Now it’s such a different dynamic because the celebration lasts a long time into the summer. We used to say, after we won the Cup, you have the parade and it’s over. It’s different now. The toughest part is keeping an even keel and a lot of times the worst thing that can happen for your team is complacency. People think you can turn it on and off. You really can’t.”

Cooper started it off in one of their first practices in training camp. In an early speech to the group, he brought up two dates, the ones on which the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in the previous two seasons. Cooper said those days were special and unforgettable, but they all started on a day like that one, on a practice sheet in Brandon. It’s “process over outcome,” always.

“They’ve got good players, don’t get me wrong,” Tocchet said. “But every year, he’s got new people coming in. You’ve got to keep things fresh.”

“The unfair thing for Jon, is everyone expects them to be great,” Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau said. “When they are great, he doesn’t get the accolades he should get, as opposed to someone that underachieved the year before and now is much better. He’s got that team playing at a level that not many teams are playing at.”

Cooper has always been a believer in “culture over strategy,” from the first high school team he coached to his days in Hofstra and Texarkana. Tampa Bay’s staff has focused more on leadership and team-building in recent years than Xs and Os. They bring in outside companies to help facilitate it, not to mention the work that team psychologist Ryan Hamilton does. Their culture is bigger than just a buzzword or cliche, with championship coaches like Nick Saban and Steve Kerr swearing by it. And Cooper has admittedly evolved.

When the Lightning have their staff meetings, which are typically two to three hours long, approximately 70 percent of the talk is about culture, about the room. The other 30 percent is about structure and Xs and Os. Cooper will gather with his assistants, and often Hamilton, and ask, “Who do we need to talk to? Who needs to buy in?”

This means getting with Hagel or Nick Paul on adjusting to their new roles on the team. It means giving young defenseman Cal Foote encouragement after sitting him out of the lineup for a while. But a key piece of this is getting the leadership group on board, with open and honest communication and collaboration with the likes of Stamkos, Ryan McDonagh, Alex Killorn and Victor Hedman being key. As assistant Derek Lalonde put it, “We can lead them to the water, but until it comes from the room, that’s when it’s special.”

“If you have a good team, as a coach, you try to get your core,” Bowman said. “You’re not going to win over your team if you don’t have a good core of players that you can trust and rely on. When you’re a head coach, you coach everybody differently. You run things by the top guys, because they play. Everybody has to play, but if the top guys aren’t on the same page, it’s not easy.”

How does Cooper do that?

“I’ve learned you can’t let ego get in the way,” Cooper said. “For me to sit here and say, ‘It’s my way or the highway,’ I think, is unfair. Even though in my mind you may want to win, and you want people to succumb, it’s not how it is. I’ve found, as I got more time in the league, you really have to listen to the players.

“There may be disagreement in some areas, but you find common ground. My job is to filter all the information and get us a game plan, but the players are the ones executing. They should have a voice, too.”

What stands out to Bowman about Cooper’s teams is that his star players rarely ever have down years. They’re typically on top of their game, and that is galvanizing for others. You rarely ever hear Cooper criticize his top players in the media, with some analysts noting how protective he was of stars Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy early in the first-round series. He publicly was strong in having their backs. Kucherov scored the game-tying goal in the third period and Vasilevskiy has played his best hockey since.

Players say they appreciate Cooper publicly not ripping them, but they also see the discipline and pushing that happens behind closed doors. Everyone saw Kucherov get benched in November of their first Cup season in December 2019. People didn’t see their meeting afterward, or how Kucherov owned up to it with teammates. After Pat Maroon struggled early in the Leafs series, including taking a bad penalty in a Game 3 loss, Cooper challenged him in a one-on-one meeting that neither would talk about. Maroon responded by scoring a key goal early in Game 4, logging his most minutes in the series.

As Cooper has said that part of the job is finding what buttons to push, with some guys needing you to put their arm around them. Some need a kick in the rear, and everything in between. Accountability is the most important factor in building a culture, Cooper believes.

“You’ve got to be honest with players. You can’t bullshit them,” Cooper said. “You have to show them you care. You have to believe in them. I think when you do that, in turn, you get a player that is willing to work. Part of your job as a coach is to be a teacher, be a manager, to be a parent and to inspire. You have to inspire them in a way to get the most out of them. That may be challenging, but you need them to feel like you’ve got their back in situations.”

This isn’t a one-man show. Cooper surrounded himself with strong communicators and culture-builders in his staff, which includes assistants Lalonde, Jeff Halpern, Rob Zettler and Frantz Jean. One way Cooper keeps his voice, and message, fresh is by having his assistants take turns running meetings, so he’s not the guy always in front of the group. If there are four meetings between playoff games, each one will take a turn. Usually, the most important meetings, or at the most critical times, Cooper will have the floor.

But Cooper, who used to be more hands-on and had to do it his way, is a lot more inclusive and happy to delegate and share responsibility with the staff. As Cooper once put it, “My job is to step back and guide the ship instead of going down and fixing the pistons in the engine room and making the bed and cooking the meals. You need to trust your people. It was hard on me early on, but it’s been well worth it.”

Was there a flip-the-switch moment in the Leafs series heading into Game 7? Sure, Cooper’s comments to the press before the game went viral, about how the group was on the “cusp of greatness” and, “Why the hell wouldn’t you charge through the door?” But, in reality, there was no magical moment or speech that sparked the season-saving victory at Scotiabank Arena.

The night before, there were some line meetings, in which Lalonde took a couple of lines and Halpern took the other. Zettler met with the defensemen. “There was no secret formula,” Lalonde said.

Bowman pointed out how Cooper has gotten the best out of his role players and newcomers, saying that Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is thriving on the penalty kill and on faceoffs. Corey Perry got power-play time and was the team’s leading scorer in six-on-five situations at the end of games. Like Bowman, who came up in Montreal with players he had coached in junior, he said it was an advantage that Cooper has some core players who he coached on a Norfolk AHL championship team, including Killorn, Ondrej Palat and former center Tyler Johnson.

Cooper started using “Wedding Crashers” quotes as part of his coaching mantra in Norfolk, and still uses them today, with “Rule 76: No excuses — Play like a champion” painted on the wall in the hallway of the dressing room. The other quote? “Don’t wait for an opportunity. Make one.”

You could see both of those ethos live out in the first few games of this Panthers series, from the blocked shots and commitment to Ross Colton scoring the game-winner with 3.8 seconds left in Game 2. Cooper and his staff made some adjustments between the first two games, including moving where Perry was positioned in the slot on the power play. Perry came through with a slick deflection of a Stamkos shot for the game’s first goal.

“You can really see how he can adapt to the game and change on the fly,” Perry said. “When something is not working, he can see it right away and make that change. It’s always good when you can have a coach behind the bench that can adapt.”

Cooper hasn’t won a Jack Adams, and may never, especially if the Lightning continue to contend for years. But, as Bowman put it, as long as you have a good team, you’re not worried about that kind of hardware. The only one that matters is hockey’s holy grail.

(Photo of Jon Cooper and players: Mark LoMoglio / NHLI via Getty Images)

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