By Stephen Whyno
Jon Cooper was a fresh-faced rising star when he coached the Norfolk Admirals to the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup championship in 2012 after going on a 28-game winning streak during the season.
Now, he is one Tampa Bay Lightning victory away from becoming just the second coach in the NHL’s salary-cap era to hoist the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons. Cooper is one of many parallels between Norfolk nine years ago and Tampa Bay now, although the former lawyer acknowledges he is better at his job thanks to almost a decade behind the bench in the top hockey league in the world.
“I’m a much more experienced, seasoned, better coach than I was then,” Cooper said. “I’ve learned a ton from other coaches, watching other coaches and then from the game. The longer you’re around and you see tendencies in the game and things that you think you can improve upon, it just takes time. I guess that’s why it’s called experience.”
The experience in 2012 was a building block to this moment. Along with Cooper, Lightning forwards Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn were key pieces for the Admirals.
Only three Norfolk players had more points during that playoff run than Johnson. After playing in a reduced role in the 2020 bubble playoffs and even getting put on waivers twice for cap reasons, Johnson got the call to move up in the lineup when Killorn was injured early in the final and delivered.
It was little surprise to Cooper when Johnson scored twice in Game 3 against the Montreal Canadiens to put Tampa Bay up 3-0 in the series.
“There’s a reason Tyler Johnson’s trophy case is fairly full, and it’s because he’s an ultimate team player,” Cooper said. “We never lost faith in Tyler Johnson and he never lost faith in himself. Roles change, you have to adapt and nobody has done it better than Tyler.”
Johnson, like Cooper, Killorn, Palat and a few others, is also a link to Tampa Bay’s 2015 run to the final before losing to Chicago. That made Lightning players realize how tough it was to win and fueled them last year and now.
“Don’t know how many chances you’re going to get,” Johnson said. “I know how fun it was last year when we won, so you want to do that again. Anytime you get this close, you really feel it.”
Cooper feels like there are many similarities between the 2012 Admirals and 2021 Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy tending goal like Dustin Tokarski, Steven Stamkos is leading like Norfolk captain Mike Angelidis, and the mentality of each team is the same.
“You have to have an ability to win games that are semi-high scoring and you have to be able to win games 1-0,” said Cooper, who was a finalist for Washington’s head job in the summer of 2012 and promoted to coach Tampa Bay in March 2013. “Both teams had goaltending, both teams had big strong D and both teams had dynamic forwards. But I guess probably the biggest similarity was they were extremely mentally tough where you could go into games at the start of a game and feel like you had the lead already.”
It has looked like that so far against the Canadiens. The Lightning have never trailed, and now they have an opportunity to cap it off just like the Admirals — with a sweep in the final.
None of it would be possible without Cooper, who players enjoy for how he tries to explain hockey in simple terms. That is very un-lawyer-speak of the 53-year-old who quit his job in 1999 to coach full time.
“You can paint a picture black and white a lot of times and be pretty specific and analyze things, but he does a great job of keeping that message positive and keeping that message coming in different directions,” veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “For us, we know that he’s going to set ourselves up and set our team up for success when he is breaking things down.”
Stamkos, one of the handful of players who predated Cooper’s arrival with the Lightning, feels as if he and his teammates have taken on their confident coach’s demeanor. The way he approaches playoff games and series has certainly rubbed off on players and contributed to what’s is closing in on a potential second consecutive Cup win.
“He wants guys to go out there and do what they’re best at and be confident in doing that,” Stamkos said. “He’s obviously grown as a coach since he’s been here in Tampa, but he’s maintained that expectation: that guys go out there and play with what’s gotten them to this level.”
Cooper is now at a coaching level that has him as the leading candidate to be in charge of Canada’s 2022 Olympic team next winter, assuming the NHL reaches an agreement to send players to Beijing. He would then get the chance to coach Lightning star Brayden Point, Canadiens goalie Carey Price and defenseman Shea Weber and maybe Stamkos and against the likes of Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman.
That’s a short tournament and a different kind of test. Cooper has already aced the exam of handling the long NHL season and playoffs.
“He’s one of the best guys at getting us adjustments within a series or adjusting to things in the season … and handling adversity in different fashions, whether it’s a guy getting hurt or a slump in our play,” McDonagh said. “Just has a great sense of where the room’s at at all times and when to step back and let the players handle it or when he needs to step up and let his voice be heard.”