Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 3/30/13
TAMPA, Fla. Steve Yzermans bet on Jon Cooper is a safe one, certainly, but time will reveal whether its smart. If anything should be learned after the Tampa Bay Lightnings departure from the Guy Boucher era, its that caution can never be in short supply. After all, Boucher commanded optimism two years ago after leading the Lightning to 103 points and within one victory against the Boston Bruins of reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Coaching can be a fickle profession. Behind the bench, positive vibes only last as long as they are replicated. Still, Yzerman, the Lightnings vice president and general manager, knew he could not risk losing a rising star in Cooper who, with Tampa Baydrifting, was promoted to head coach Monday, one day after the team announced the firing ofBoucher.The former American Hockey League coach for Tampa Bays affiliates in Syracuse, N.Y., and Norfolk, Va., became too much of a commodity to let walk. Cooper, 45, received interest from the Washington Capitals last summer before the Southeast Division rival hired Adam Oates. In a later year, perhaps another franchise with a vacancy might not have passed. On paper, this is a savvy move by the Hall of Famer Yzerman. Helocks up an asset within his organization Cooper had a 133-62-26 AHL record while trusting that the former defense attorneys methods will translate to a larger stage. There were so many things I wanted to do, Cooper said of his opener, after the Lightnings 5-4 shootout victory over the New Jersey Devils on Friday at Tampa Bay Times Forum.Then I was like, What am I doing? This is Game 1. Theres time to put all this in. I dont want to information overload the guys. I kind of simplified things a bit. But it was when everybody left for warmups and I was all by myself in the coachs room. Then I felt it, Wow, Im nervous. But as soon as the puck drops, all of the sudden, youre in your element. Outlooks always appear limitless at their start. Thats not bad or wrong or naive, and its not limited to the NHL. In life, we like to envision that a journey will lead to a desired destination. We like to believe that a path will include no tension, no conflict, no wrong turns. Its wise to remember that reality is muddy, complicated. Careers arent made after one game, one week, or as the Boucher era showed, one season. Results can change. Success can be fleeting, and more times than not, it is. Still, for the Lightning, this is a moment for optimism. Players praised Cooper after the initial practice under him Thursday, pointing to his laid-back leadership style as a plus. The session ended with winger Martin St. Louis celebrating with Victor Hedman after the defensemans winning goal in a shootout competition. Yes, there was a shootout competition. Certainly, a few grins are good during a season in which the Lightning entered Fridays game six points behind the New York Rangers for the Eastern Conferences final playoff spot. (Remember, they began the season 6-1.) Cooper has said he wants to players to breathe easily and feel free under his guidance. In turn, he hopes that ethos extends to the ice. Will it? Thats the puzzle. Thats Coopers test this season and beyond. You come to the rink and when youre winning, youre having fun, Lightning center Steven Stamkos said. Thats the only way his approach is. He hates losing. When we come to this rink, the last couple practices, guys are having fun out there. We know what we have to do. We know the parameters. We know the boundaries. You have to respect that and be accountable. But youve got to have fun when youre out there. The read on Cooper has only begun, but he seems to have the right approach early. Bouchers firing Sunday, following a loss to the Ottawa Senators the night before, was a jarring moment for the franchise. Yzerman said the move wasnt made with securing a playoff berth in mind. Still, Bouchers departure is a flashpoint for everyone in the franchise: Theres urgency to reach the postseason for only the second time since 2007. A countdown is on 14 games remain after Friday and each will hold considerable weight. Theres little margin for error. This is where Coopers influence can prove valuable. He has spent his coaching career as a molder of talent, shaping players in developmental environments. (He coached nine current Lightning players in the AHL.) He honed a number of traits that could be resourceful under his new title: Patience, vision, awareness of a long-term plan. His presence behind Tampa Bays bench can be one of authority, yes, but also one spent nurturing others while sharing a vision. The past can be his greatest asset for the future. He makes sure that guys are having fun and like coming to the rink, Lightning center Cory Conacher said. He makes sure guys want to wake up and come to the rink. He set that atmosphere right when we walked in the door the other day. He let us know that this is our job, but at the same time, its a fun job. We play a game, so lets have fun with it. Coopers presence with this loose direction, though, is no guarantee that the Lightning will rally to make the playoffs. The area where they must improve most is obvious: They entered Friday ranked No. 23 in the league in goals-against average, surrendering 3.00 per game. They have two of the game's most dynamic offensive forces Stamkos (46) and St. Louis (43) were third and fourth in the league in points, respectively, after Friday's victory but they have struggled to mount a threat in the Southeast Division after the strong start. They are a skilled team. They are also flawed. Building under Cooper will require a process. It will take patience. If approached with care, though, change can come. Thats the most important point to remember about Yzermans bet on Cooper. The early returns are positive. But in these early hours, they are incomplete. The identity of this new day wont be known for some time. You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.
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