Game #22 – Lightning vs. Hawks Spotlight: The Coach You Should Want

Sometimes your aimless speculation turns into reality. You should probably just accept the good fortune that makes you look prescient instead of questioning the randomness of the fates.

Yesterday, Mike Babcock was fired, which started a flicker that could turn into a full out flame of wondering and soon rumors that he could find his way to Chicago. If the Hawks were to fall on their face at any point this season and miss the playoffs by a huge margin, Jeremy Colliton‘s position would certainly be awkward if not untenable. Babcock’s name has cache, would command respect immediately from the main vets in the room (three of whom have played for him at the Olympic level), and at least provide a floor of professionalism and structure.

It would also be the wrong move.

We broke down why it would be on the podcast, so let’s shift the focus. We’ve had a lot of fun with Jon Cooper around here (a lot of fun), but what that doesn’t change is that he’s a very good coach. Perhaps the leader in the “Not A Moron” category in our binary system of rating coaches around the league.

The Lightning have never finished with less than 94 points under his watch, now in its 7th season. The one year they missed the playoffs, Steven Stamkos played just 17 games, Ben Bishop was hurt as well and Andrei Vasilevskiy was making his first foray into being a starter. And they still gathered 94 points. He was the captain on the ship that gobbled up 128 points last year.

Moreover, Cooper has been able to integrate and develop a wave of young talent to turn the Lightning into a power. First it was the Triplets of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat, with the middle guy there becoming an MVP. Of late it’s been Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde and Mikhail Sergachev and Eric Cernak. He knows how to put people in the places they will have the best chance of succeeding. And he plays an up-tempo, get up the ice style that meshes with what the NHL is these days.

Mike Babcock does none of these things.

However, Babs’s name will carry more weight because of the trophy cabinet, a mark Cooper has yet to make. Two conference finals, a Final appearance, and all were lost to modern dynasties by the tightest of margins (yes, it’s a stretch to call the Caps that, but their decade-spanning stay atop their division certainly makes them one of the teams of the era). No other coach around is matching that aside from Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh of late, aside from one Joel Quenneville.

Which you might think would make it pure fantasy that Cooper could even get fired, let alone come to Chicago. But is it? Along with that record-breaking season last year comes the weight of the embarrassing first-round collapse. And as the malaise from that has carried over into this season, one wonders how much the pressure is already ramping up. The enduring image of Cooper at the moment are his exclamations of “This is our chance!” during Game 4 in Columbus last year when an offsides challenge had canceled out a Jackets goal.

Really? You had the greatest team of the modern era, or at least the best regular season, and this is what you need to get past a team 35 points behind you in the standings? Clearly, it wasn’t their chance.

Cooper has to wear that, though there isn’t anything a coach is going to do about a goalie who puts up an .856 SV% over four games. Still, the Lightning seemed to freeze in the headlights after a Game 1 loss.

Which isn’t fair, because Cooper has playoff success on his resume, which means he’s instilled a confidence and fight in his team before. Couldn’t it just be an anomaly?

Still, this Lightning team is now as Cup-or-bust as it gets. And sitting second-last in the Atlantic probably isn’t what the front office had in mind when they basically held the line on personnel this summer (as they should have). Could they get itchy? Could they conclude something broke last spring and only a new voice will snap the players over that hurdle? Not so outlandish, is it?

Should it happen, the Hawks should be all over Cooper. Maybe he doesn’t carry the cache of Babcock, but you know what? He’s the better coach. If you’re a Hawks fan hoping for a seismic change behind the bench, this is the one you want.

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