WINNIPEG — Today’s lesson is brought to you by the letter ‘A.’
No, this isn’t a flashback to your youth, when Sesame Street may have been a staple on your television.
It’s a valuable lesson, one delivered by the longest tenured head coach in the NHL, Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It’s one that Cooper, with two Stanley Cups on his sparkling résumé (2020, 2021), hopes can help pull his hockey club out of a mini-slump during this final quarter of the regular season.
It’s a lesson in accountability, one that is sometimes easier to talk about and not quite as simple to implement for teams or coaching staffs, for that matter.
Every team goes through a rough patch (or several) over the course of an 82-game schedule. That comes with the territory, whether you’re a one of the best teams in the league or one of the worst.
But in the third period of a game with the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday afternoon, Cooper utilized that page in the coach’s manual many only consult during the in-case-of-emergency-break-glass phase — if they turn to it at all.
For the entirety of that period, all three members of the Lightning’s top line — captain Steven Stamkos, leading scorer Nikita Kucherov, and two-way force Brayden Point — didn’t take a single shift.
And it wasn’t because of injury or illness either.
Instead, Cooper had the trio stapled to the bench as his team tried to battle back in a game with the upstart Sabres, who showed the type of desperation one would expect from a team battling to get back over the playoff line in the Eastern Conference.
No, this move was not a personal attack, nor was it something that will carry over into a healthy scratch for any of the aforementioned players on Sunday when the Lightning face the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday afternoon.
Yes, this move was meant to send a message to the high-scoring trio, but equally important was what it said to the rest of the Lightning team — as in, if Cooper is willing to do this to three of the biggest stars on one of the best clubs in the NHL, he most certainly would be willing to do it to any player on the roster.
“Well, as coaches, you’ve got to put your team in the best position to win and 99.9 per cent of the time, those guys give us the best chance to win when they’re on the ice,” Cooper told reporters in Buffalo, where the Lightning lost 5-3 to the Sabres. “I just felt in the third period they weren’t giving us the best chance to win.”
Cooper wasn’t ranting and raving when he answered the question about the benching, one he certainly knew would be coming.
He delivered his response calmly and directly while providing some important context for all to hear.
“This team has been unbelievable for a decade and you take the three Finals, there’s a reason that a lot of that is happening,” said Cooper. “We have a set of standards that everybody adheres to. It’s not pick and choose, it’s everybody. So, that’s how it was for today. Like I said, those guys are an extremely important part of our team. But for 20 minutes, I thought the other guys could get it done and you know what, they almost did.”
Now, the other part of the equation is the relationship established by Cooper with each of those players over the course of his tenure coaching them.
Cooper knows those players hold themselves to a high standard and aren’t going to want something like this to happen again.
Quite frankly, both Cooper and the Lightning know this can’t become a regular occurrence.
When something — in this case, ice time — is taken away, the natural inclination is to respond.
No player wants to go through that, whether you’re a role player or a star.
It’s going to serve as motivation for them.
It’s also going to put the rest of the players on high alert, something Cooper is going to want from his team as the stretch run ramps up and they look to leave a four-game slide in the rear-view mirror.
“You’re going to have to ask the players that,” said Cooper, knowing full well how the individuals and entire group was going to view the situation. “But like I said, (with) the amount of pride in this room and our organization, it’s not a situation where you’re upset with guys or you feel differently about guys. You’ve got to come here and go to work. It’s the best league in the world, with the best players and if you’re not on it, you’re not giving it to the standard that this franchise has set the bar, for me, the league in the last how many years? You can’t go out there.
“Like I said, those guys are the reason we have a standard that high. It’s because of those guys. For a period, that was it.”
Make no mistake, Cooper knew full well the players had already taken notice in real time.
“Those guys are our leaders. Those guys lead the way and those are the guys that we depend on every single night to play at a high pace, create offence, play good D,” Lightning winger Pat Maroon told reporters. “Everyone goes through a phase like that. I don’t think they’re going to be the only line that’s sat, but with Stammer, Kuch and Point, they’ll respond well to it.
“Why this locker room has been so good these last few years is that we all hold each other accountable and we lean on each other when we need each other. This is kind of a time where, obviously, a couple of leaders get sat and we don’t look at them any differently. They know and they’ll nip it in the bud in the next game.”
This Lightning team knows what it takes to win, having competed in each of the last three Stanley Cup finals, finishing just two wins shy of a rare three-peat before the Colorado Avalanche knocked them off the top of the mountain last May.
With a first-round match up with the Toronto Maple Leafs looming next month, Cooper knows his group is going to need to be playing its best hockey if they want to go on another extended run.
That’s why he chose to make an example of the top three scorers on his team.
“We’re playing the game slow,” said Cooper. “We’ve done it now for probably a week and a half, two weeks, now it’s catching up on us in the wins and the losses. But, if we bring the passion and want and will that we brought in the third period, this whatever you call it is not going to last too long.
“A lot of encouraging signs, but in the end, there are no moral victories in this game, a loss is a loss. So, we have the same amount of points as we did two-and-a-half points as we did moving forward, but that third period was encouraging.”
Is this bold move a guaranteed way to help a team snap out of a self-inflicted funk?
Absolutely not, but it’s a card Cooper wouldn’t have played unless he thought it was necessary.
That’s not to suggest this is going to be a trend for teams battling for whatever they may be battling for — whether that’s simply a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs, a higher seeding, or whatever else might be at stake.
The biggest lesson in this move by Cooper is that if you’re a coach — whether an established one with nearly 800 regular-season games on your résumé or looking to find your footing as a first-time bench boss — building a buy-in begins and ends with accountability.
A QUICK TURNAROUND?
That the Los Angeles Kings were looking for an upgrade in goal didn’t exactly qualify as breaking news, but that they shipped out long-time starter Jonathan Quick to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the package that brought back goalie Joonas Korpisalo and defenceman Vladislav Gavrikov was a not-so-subtle reminder of the business side of the game.
Quick, 37, was a homegrown product, chosen in the third round (72nd overall) by the Kings in the 2005 NHL Draft.
He backstopped the organization to its first two Stanley Cups and ended up playing 743 regular-season games (including 729 starts), and another 92 during the playoffs.
This season has been a struggle for Quick, who was sporting a 3.50 goals-against average and .859 save percentage in 31 games (including 27 starts).
Kings GM Rob Blake felt an upgrade was needed, so he made the difficult call to trade Quick.
That won’t change the fact Quick is probably going to have a statue built beside long-time Kings forward Dustin Brown a few years down the road.
But in the short term, it sets up the juicy possibility that the Vegas Golden Knights, who subsequently acquired Quick from the Blue Jackets, could face the Kings at some point during the Stanley Cup playoffs, perhaps even in the opening round.
For all of the well-deserved chatter about the Maple Leafs and Lightning and the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils being on a collision course, seeing the Kings and Golden Knights go toe-to-toe after this unexpected development would potentially bring another fascinating layer to the post-season.
During his first session with reporters in Las Vegas, Quick took the high road, preferring to discuss the future rather than vent about his departure from the Kings.
You couldn’t help but notice the time Quick took to thank Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen for finding him a home with a contender.
You certainly got the sense Quick isn’t quite ready to fade quietly into the sunset either.
“No, I wouldn’t have expected this,” Quick told reporters. “There (were) a ton of emotions, obviously, considering how much time my family and I spent there.
“But at the end of the day, they made a decision they felt was best for their team, so I made some decisions that I thought were best for me and my family.”
Quick brings 16 seasons of NHL experience and he’s been a guy who isn’t afraid of the big stage, so he should bring an important element to the Golden Knights, whether he plays more of a supporting role or at some point takes centre stage.
“For my first new situation in 16 years, I really do feel comfortable already,” said Quick, who is surrounded by several former Kings teammates and some other guys he’s played alongside with the U.S. national program. “They’re a top team in the league every single year… It’s motivating. I’ve said it a few times here, I’m looking forward to being part of this team and do what you want to do every year. You want to win your division, you want to win playoff series, and you want to win 16 playoff games. Whatever I can do to help them get there, that’s what I want to do.”
If Quick and the Golden Knights happen to bounce the Kings along the way, he would certainly view that as an obvious bonus, even if he didn’t bother to say it out loud.
Excellent piece of business taken care of by Bruins GM Don Sweeney with the eight-year extension for winger David Pastrnak. While things were trending this way, Sweeney scratched another important item off the to-do list before the off-season arrived and the heat got turned up on the situation. Pastrnak will nearly double his salary (from $6.667 million to $11.25 million), but he’s outperformed his current deal by leaps and bounds and keeping him in the fold was essential.
Staying with the Bruins, how about the impact defenceman Dmitry Orlov has made since coming over in the deal with the Washington Capitals that also included right-winger Garnet Hathaway? In five tilts, Orlov is up to three goals and nine points, including a pair of three-point showings. The Bruins are a high-scoring team, but that’s high-level production. The Bruins receive their latest stick tap for becoming the first team in the NHL to eclipse 100 points this season and they’re also on the verge of 50 wins (49-8-5 for 103 points).
The Ottawa Senators just won’t go away, putting together a five-game winning streak to stay in the hunt for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference to move within three points of the Pittsburgh Penguins going into Sunday’s action. Tim Stützle is riding a career-high four-game goal streak and the third-year forward has eclipsed 30 goals for the first time. The third-overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft has increased his goal and point totals in each of his three seasons and progression of the 21-year-old from Germany is helping the hard-working Senators take the next step.
Another day, another impressive feat for Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, who hit the 50-goal mark for the first time with a two-goal showing on Feb. 27. McDavid is up to a league-leading 52 but had his ridiculous run of five consecutive two-goal games come to an end on Friday in a game against the Winnipeg Jets. McDavid didn’t score a goal in any of the three games in the season series, but he still managed four points over the past two games on the weekend, while Leon Draisaitl scored five times and added an assist for a six-point outburst in those matchups. That stretch has moved Draisaitl to 41 goals for the campaign, which is good for a tie for fourth with Colorado Avalanche winger Mikko Rantanen. Only McDavid, Pastrnak (44) and Sabres centre Tage Thompson (42) have scored more.
The term “statement game” can be overused and overstated, but the Dallas Stars came up with a decisive 7-3 victory over the Avalanche on Saturday afternoon. The Stars recently went through a rough patch, dropping five of six games (1-2-3) but they’ve regrouped with a three-game winning streak, which allowed them to keep the Minnesota Wild three points back in the chase for top spot in the Central Division. Wyatt Johnston, the 23rd-overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, is up to fourth in goals scored by a rookie after notching his 15th of the campaign on Saturday and he’s up to 29 points in 63 games.