What to Expect from Jon Cooper
“#TampaCuse” went on steroids Monday as Tampa Bay announced that Syracuse coach Jon Cooper is joining his 10 former students with the Lightning as head coach.
Cooper’s story is well documented. He was a practicing lawyer who had a dream to be a hockey coach and then went out and won a billion games and a handful of championships.
Perhaps most impressive are the players he taught, some of whom are now in the NHL impressing coaches with their effort and two-way abilities. Dubbed “The Rookie Whisperer” by this site, Cooper makes players better.
When the news of Cooper’s promotion started making its way around Twitterverse, last year’s Calder Cup MVP, Alex Picard, tweeted: “BIG congrats to my last year coach @CoopersLaw for his promotion with Tampa! You deserved!! Best coach I ever had! #Goodluck”
What to Expect:
Jon Cooper is a winner.
One of his players once said that Cooper hates losing more than he loves winning. Another said he is "obsessed with winning." That attitude is reflected in his teams’ style of play.
His teams are not going to sit back and hope for a win. If victory is going to be theirs, they’re going to go take it.
It all starts with what Cooper calls “habits” and “systems.”
Hard work and using speed to their advantage are two of the habits Cooper demands of his teams.
His systems, like most, are based on situation and location, but they are all executed aggressively. In other words, he doesn't sit back in the 1-3-1 that Guy Boucher (and the Flyers) made famous.
Boucher was also unorthodox in that he wanted opposing forwards outnumbered in the defensive zone along the wall – even if it meant pulling two defensemen to the same wall. A forward would cover the slot, which creates risk. Boucher tried to balance this with what he called “lightning quick transition” when the defense or backcheckers gained possession. This was tricky with a winger or center covering the slot as they would often leave too early or cheat high in the zone exposing the slot. At times it made for spotty play and there was little room for error. When the system was on, it was highly effective. When it was off a little, the team was off a lot.
Cooper’s teams use the traditional method of keeping the weakside defensemen in the slot and relying on forwards to come deeper in the defensive zone to help gain the puck and fill lanes. When possession is gained – similar to Boucher – there’s a quick transition and defensemen are encouraged to join the rush. Mark Barberio led all AHL defensemen in points last year with Cooper’s Norfolk Admirals.
This small change with the Lightning should allow for more strength in the slot, better weakside coverage, and a healthier positional balance with defensemen and forwards in the defensive third.
Where Cooper’s teams make their mark is their swarming presence on the ice. He aims to eliminate time and space as quickly as possible in all zones through speed and tenacity. His attack is staggered enough to protect against a slew of odd-man rushes.
In the offensive zone, he likes things simple: get the puck on net and support the shot with bodies. Add the swarming style and they are often able to re-gain possession to quickly set up another shot.
This creates “surges,” as John Tortorella used to say, which seem to last for multiple shifts. Lightning fans saw a great example of this recently from a line that included Cooper students Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson that maintained possession in the opposition’s zone for a ridiculous amount of time. Palat and Johnson aren’t the biggest players, but they were faster to the puck and lanes - a prime example of hard work and utilizing speed.
Cooper’s surges – at least at the AHL level – were a team staple and last year in Norfolk would last nearly full periods. He uses puck possession as defense (you can’t score if you don’t have the puck - something the Red Wings used in Yzerman's day), and will just keep swarming the puck without allowing the opposition proper time to make calculated outlet passes. At its best, Cooper’s style makes it look like the ice is literally tilted for 1-2 periods at a time.
While team-first strategies are important, Cooper places a high priority on individuals and identifies every player’s skill set so he can put them in position to succeed. Part of this is finding which tactics he can use to reach a player interpersonally.
Perhaps his greatest success story is Richard Panik, who was dogged in his junior career for being lazy, inconsistent, and unengaged. You wouldn’t know it from watching Panik now.
With a stable roster, Cooper uses set lines, but like all coaches will tinker if things aren’t working. He’s more apt to let lines gel than pull names out of a hat, however.
The priority in Cooper's roster composition is to find a group that will be strong for every single game. Consistency is a must. He was a two-time general manager of the year in his early career for a reason.
The first thing Lightning fans can see is something they got a glimpse of against the Jets – consistent effort. Cooper will hold players accountable (he benched Cory Conacher each of the last two years) if a player isn’t providing effort. Fortunately for him, that usually isn’t a problem. He has a great rapport with his players and is regarded as a player’s coach as opposed to a disciplinarian. Players want to play hard for him.
In the long run, Lightning fans can expect an entertaining, fast product with lots of shots and scoring opportunities. His goaltenders put up solid numbers as shots against are limited. Offense is created from defense.
Yzerman craves stability, so as long as Cooper – twice handpicked by Yzerman – keeps the team playing at a high level and providing consistent effort, Cooper will be behind the Lightning bench. The rest of this season isn’t just an audition.
Fans should temper their expectations early, as it will likely be a full camp and maybe a month or two of play next year before Cooper’s systems are fully in place and his habits adopted.
But, if Cooper’s .717 career winning percentage is any indication, expect to win. A lot.