Jon Cooper on losing Kucherov, Cirelli's next level, and Tampa's title defense

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The last time most hockey fans saw Jon Cooper, he was flanked on each side by three members of his coaching staff for a seven-man press conference.

A Gatorade cup filled with an adult beverage and a fat cigar at the ready, Cooper answered questions with the sort of charm he's known for. Over the 10-minute session, the Tampa Bay Lightning bench boss, sporting a grin reserved only for newly crowned champions, often deferred to his assistants.

"I'll always remember us up on that podium," Cooper told theScore during a weekend phone interview. "As a staff, we've sat around and said, 'That was awesome that we were all up there together.' That was kind of the culmination of everything that had gone on. It just felt right to do."

That scene played out in late September. Moments earlier, Cooper and the entire Lightning contingent - players, coaches, staff - had hoisted the Stanley Cup in a fanless arena in Edmonton as the last team standing after a 65-day playoff grind inside the NHL bubble.

Three-and-a-half months on, the club finds itself in the rejigged Central Division, down a superstar for the entire regular season, and highly motivated to become just the second team to win consecutive Cups in the salary-cap era.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday's banner-raising season opener against the Chicago Blackhawks, Cooper, the NHL's longest-tenured head coach, discussed several topics pertaining to the idiosyncratic 2020-21 season.

Life without Kucherov

Almost immediately after Tampa won the Cup, all eyes turned to Cooper's boss, Julien BriseBois. How could the Lightning GM possibly keep his stacked roster intact with three key young players due for significant raises and minimal room to maneuver under a flattened, $81.5-million salary cap?

We now know the answer: Patience, contingency plans, and some bad luck.

BriseBois managed to extend restricted free agents Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak on three-year deals worth a combined $12.55 million a season. Out the door went blue-line depth - Kevin Shattenkirk, Braydon Coburn, and Zach Bogosian - as well as fourth-line forwards Cedric Paquette and Carter Verhaeghe. Most crucially, all-world winger Nikita Kucherov and his $9.5-million cap hit landed on long-term injured reserve.

The Kucherov news, precipitated by a December hip surgery that will force the 2019 Hart Trophy winner to miss the 56-game regular season, was not welcome. It helped the Lightning become cap compliant and means forwards Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn probably won't be leaving town anytime soon (though the team did place the former on waivers Monday). But there's no denying Tampa is far better off with Kucherov in the lineup.

"We kind of got kicked in the teeth," Cooper said of losing Kucherov, who trails only Connor McDavid in total points over the last three NHL seasons.

Asked about Brisebois' stressful offseason, the head coach lauded his general manager's efforts.

"Julien does his homework. He knows the landscape of what's out there. He knows his players," Cooper said. "When he makes a decision, he will put his cajones on the line to do what he believes is right for the team. You've got to respect that about him. But he also doesn't rush to judgment. So he thinks everything through and has every scenario planned out. The (curveball) was that we didn't foresee this one happening. But, when it did happen, he was fully prepared to put the puzzle pieces together to make it work once we got the news on Kuch. That was impressive in itself.

"He didn't dismantle the team after we won. He navigated the waters and then waited. I think he had other scenarios set up to go (if Kucherov didn't require surgery). But this changed everything."

Kucherov, who recorded 34 points in 25 postseason games, is Tampa's top sniper, the heart of its power play, and a respected leader. So who will be looked upon to replace that kind of production and presence?

"I think there's a group of guys right now who are probably vying for spots. If you lose a third-liner or something like that, usually players can jump in and you're not really going to miss a beat. But when you lose a guy who contributes so much to our team, especially on the offensive side, I don't think you can sit here and say, 'Well, which guys are going to step up?' I think it's like, 'OK, we lost an important player on the offensive side of things for us; how as a group are we going to deal with this?'" Cooper said.

"Part of that is, are we going to continue to play with pace, are we going to continue to use the skill that we have? Yes, we are. But is our attention to detail in the defensive zone and trying to snuff teams out and eliminate scoring chances there? All of a sudden, a game we may have won 4-1 or 4-2 now becomes 2-1. I think, as a mentality, we don't want to take away from the art and the skill that we have. But we have to get out of our head that we're going to be able to score our way out of situations all the time like we used to be able to do. We're going to have to defend our way out of situations."

Cirelli's next level

Cirelli's well-documented rise from OHL walk-on to Selke Trophy contender has been nothing short of extraordinary. Through his first two full NHL seasons, he's punched well above his weight as the 72nd pick of the 2015 draft.

"He stops and starts and he never gives up on a puck. Those are two huge attributes to have in a player," Cooper said. "You can't take shortcuts to get around Cirelli, or he'll get you. He also has really good instincts. You can sit there and say he has habits you can teach, but he also has some innate habits. He has good instincts for where his stick needs to be. He almost knows where players are going to go. If there's a hockey sense for forechecking and a hockey sense for defending, he's got a pretty good grasp of that."

Cirelli finished fourth in Selke voting as a 22-year-old sophomore in 2019-20, so he's in fine form on the defensive side of the puck. There might be some wiggle room to grow elsewhere, however, and if Cirelli can find a way to produce at a higher rate than his respectable 44 points in 68 games last season, he'll quickly vault from fringe stud to legitimate star.

"That's the next step for him," Cooper said of the 6-foot, 193-pound center. "That just goes to confidence, reps in the league, knowing what you can and cannot do. He hasn't really garnered a lot of power-play time with us, but I think it's time for us to at some point slide him in there. It might be on the second unit. And we'll look for him to contribute a little bit more offensively."

The Lightning are widely considered to be Cup favorites again, seemingly dominating that discussion along with the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights. The continued development of Cirelli, Sergachev, Cernak, and other youngsters will be essential to Tampa reaching its lofty ceiling once more.

Goaltending workload

The truncated 2020-21 regular season will be one long juggling act for NHL head coaches. Each team will play a game practically every other day. The first few weeks won't be kind to structure or systems. COVID-19 outbreaks will inevitably disrupt schedules and lineups. And so on. It all makes for a coach's nightmare.

For Cooper, a ferocious in-game gum-chewer, the introduction of mandatory face coverings will present yet another challenge unique to the pandemic era.

"I may have to practice that," Cooper said with a chuckle. "Is it going to stick to the mask? Twice a year, though - and this never fails - the gum does come out of the mouth. So, at least the mask will be a good blockade?"

On a more serious note, managing goalie workloads will be a tricky task for all 31 head coaches. In Tampa, stud netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy has averaged 55 starts a year over the past four seasons. That's roughly 67% of all starts in an 82-game campaign. The 56-game equivalent is 38.

"The first thing I did was just prorate it. ... Then you factor in your back-to-backs. You factor in a little bit of travel," Cooper said. "When we've been really working Vasi in the past, he's been playing basically three games in a row and then (backup Curtis McElhinney) one. Three and one. Three and one. And I don't see that changing a whole ton because Vasi has gotten all of this rest. The shortened season, believe it or not, can actually benefit the goaltender because it isn't such a marathon. It's a little bit more of a sprint.

"So if you just manage your goaltenders, both the mental load and the physical load, I think you might be able to get away with playing those games where it's three on, one off."

The more Cooper talked it out, though, the further he drifted toward flexibility.

"A lot of it has to do with how your week looks. ... The backup may come into play for the unknowns," he said. "For instance, games are already getting moved. We're affected by it with (the Dallas Stars postponing their first three games). Where is that game going to come in? If that game slides into a back-to-back, well, that means Vasi just lost a game and McElhinney just picked up a game. So I think your backup is going to get games added to his schedule."

New rallying cry

What made Tampa's Cup win so enthralling for outsiders - and extra special for the organization - was how it put a positive spin on a story that until that point had climaxed with a shocking playoff exit in the spring of 2019.

Cooper - who has won championships at every level he's coached - was constantly asked last year about the Columbus Blue Jackets sweeping his team from the first round of the previous postseason. He even broached the topic himself from time to time during his daily dealings with the media. The disappointment clearly fueled him and his core group - which has been together, in some form of another, for half of a decade - as the Lightning attempted to rewrite the script and finally reach the top of the mountain.

Then, in September, the same group won the franchise's second Stanley Cup, defeating Columbus along the way. So, as defending champs, what's the new rallying cry?

"Every year is different. And it is true: Once you take a sip from the Cup, you want to do it again. It is a little bit of an adrenaline hit of winning. You just want to have more now that you've tasted it," Cooper said.

"In 2019, when we exited so early in the playoffs, deep down inside, did you want another chance at the team that knocked you out? For sure you did. It's just funny how it was never set up to go that way unless (COVID-19) hit because we would have played the (Toronto Maple Leafs) in the first round. It's weird how it worked out because a lot of times you don't get a second chance. And our group got a second chance, and they made the best of it.

"The big thing for us is that we've had all of this success these past few years, we've put ourselves in a position to do this again, and the guys talked about how we're not going to be one-and-done. 'Let's not be one-and-done. Let's not be one-and-done.' And I think a lot of guys are pretty focused on that, of making sure, in our window here, that we get another chance at it."

John Matisz is theScore's national hockey writer. You can follow John on Twitter (@MatiszJohn) and contact him via email (