How much can hockey coaches effect change? They literally control the levers of power, determining playing time and who goes out for what situation. But while their influence can be very meaningful, for nearly every NHL coach the feeling is ephemeral. In a spat with a star, management will almost always choose the player over the coach. Also, a team can fire a coach, and his replacement can steer them to a Stanley Cup (see Blues, St. Louis).
Coach Jon Cooper is unusually empowered. He is currently the NHL’s longest tenured coach. When he butted heads with Jonathan Drouin, it was Drouin, not Cooper, who left town. The Lightning trust Cooper so much that he received his extension before last spring’s playoffs even began. And then the Lightning proceeded to implode.
Their early exit was a confluence of bad breaks coupled with the Lightning being poorly prepared to adapt to a Columbus team that could exploit their vulnerabilities. But with a summer to reflect on why the Lightning were manhandled by a team that squeaked into the playoffs, Cooper has hopefully ruminated on the squad’s shortcomings and is ready to adjust. In case he hasn’t, I am offering my list of goals.
1. Develop a team that can forecheck
Against Columbus, it was abundantly clear that the Lightning were incapable of creating offense off the chip and chase. During the regular season, the Bolts rarely relied on their forecheck. Suddenly, they needed to use a muscle that hadn’t been exercised since the last playoffs. But the lack of preparation to implement and succeed with the forecheck was surprising when one considers that eliminating offense from the Lightning’s rush attack was the most obvious tactical move for Columbus.
There is less space in the playoffs because transition defense is more prominent, enabling defensemen to tighten their gaps. Moreover, once the Blue Jackets had a lead, their neutral-zone shell eliminated the Lightning’s transition offense entirely, leaving Tampa Bay’s forwards helpless. This was especially true with the first two lines, which is where the Lightning scoring was heavily concentrated.
Cooper will have 82 games to sharpen this area of the first two lines’ game. There is a lot of room for improvement. It demands better placement of the puck on the initial heave, and the F1 arriving in time to jostle and disrupt the retrieving defenseman. (Anthony Cirelli is an excellent forechecker, and if he is bumped up into the top six, he will immediately improve his line’s forechecking abilities.) The F2 also needs to alight in the right spot to seal the passing lane or snatch possession after the F1 dispossesses the opponent. Against Columbus, every step of that process was disjointed, and the Blue Jackets were able to exit their end with relative ease.
2. Instill more discipline
The Lightning were the most penalized team in the NHL. In the playoffs, Tampa Bay’s lack of discipline torpedoed them, impacting each game. In Game 1, Seth Jones scored the game winner on the power play. In Game 2, the Lightning fell behind 3-0 early after Columbus potted two man-advantage markers. In Game 3, the deciding goal came off Oliver Bjorkstrand on the power play. And in Game 4, the Blue Jackets scored first thanks to Alexandre Texier converting when the Lightning were on the penalty kill. Columbus notched five power-play goals, all of which were consequential, and this was because Tampa Bay was playing unhinged.
The Lightning have always been a heavily penalized team under Cooper. Even when they made the Cup in 2014-15, they accrued over 300 minor penalties during the regular season and in the postseason finished first by a wide margin. Last year, Tampa Bay also had the best penalty kill in the NHL during the regular season, so evidently the Bolts thought they could weather a few bad decisions and would not need to curtail their recklessness.
But maintaining a bad habit because it hasn’t plagued you in the past is not a good reason to keep the status quo. The Lightning are awesome at even strength, and should be conscientious about keeping their passions in check because it sidelines their best players. When they go on the penalty kill, that is less time for Kucherov and Point to make an impact at 5v5. Same goes for Stamkos, who gets sporadic penalty kill time but would surely rather spend that effort at even strength. Moreover, in the postseason, a smart coach can design a power-play set that will dismantle a good penalty kill, as was demonstrated by the Blue Jackets against the Lightning. Once they put Nick Foligno in the bumper spot, the Lightning wilted.
3. Impress on the forwards their duty to buoy the defensemen
The strangest part of the Blue Jackets series was the lack of effort on defense from the Lightning forwards. The Lightning defensemen were in constant retreat because their forwards could not sustain pressure in the offensive zone. This put the Tampa Bay defensemen on their heels, and it got ugly. The Bolts defensemen lost races and committed turnovers, but partly that was because their forwards were idle and not offering support. With a more engaged group of forwards aiding the Lightning’s defensive corps, zone exits would have been less painful.
The ease with which the Blue Jackets moved the puck was the most dispiriting. There was almost a sense of tranquility as they ferried the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone, since they felt no pressure from the Tampa Bay forwards destabilizing them. The Lightning did not offer transition defense, and this led to them conceding the entry, or allowing a Columbus forward to deliberately dump the puck into an area where he or his teammate would claim possession.
If the Lightning want to capitalize on their stacked roster and a league that is wide open, they need to be able to forecheck when duty demands it. They need to keep a cooler head and not consign themselves to playing at a man disadvantage. Finally, their forwards need to bring equal effort to squelching the opponent’s broadsides, and they can achieve that by more aid on breakouts and by choking off the enemy’s transition game. The Lightning will have an entire regular season to develop good habits. They just need to be self-aware enough to work on them.