Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper had to know this wasn’t his team’s year.
Nothing went right for them in their first-round playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They blew two third-period leads. They lost twice in overtime. The players looked achy and tired.
But not Cooper.
Cooper looked like he’d play two a day if they’d let him. Every presser brimmed with a sense of wonder. He smiled a lot, which is not a thing you see in hockey.
Tampa won a potential elimination Game 5, which made no one in the media happy. Now, they’d all have to schlep back to Florida on short notice to try to end this thing.
“Let’s be honest – this game’s so damn fun,” Cooper said. “Seriously. Wouldn’t you guys have been pissed if this ended tonight?”
Clearly, this was not a man who had to fly Delta through Detroit.
But it was hard to stay cynical in the face of Cooper’s enthusiasm. The man was beat, but he either wouldn’t accept it or already had, and decided to strap in for the ride.
In that moment, you couldn’t help but be struck by an idea – that no Maple Leafs coach ever talks this way. Never.
Everything went wrong for the Leafs
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Leafs coaches all sound like they’re giving an emergency news conference in the parking lot at police headquarters. Something bad has happened, and what’s important now is delivering a sombre, cliché-ridden lecture. “My fellow citizens, tonight the Boston Bruins did something terrible to our great city.”
Because it’s the Leafs, something bad is always happening. The team lost two in a row, or Matt Murray walked into a phone pole or – worst of all – everything’s going okay and there is extreme danger of seeming upbeat about it.
This mood starts with the head coach and trickles down to the players. Auston Matthews conducts every scrum staring at the ground five feet in front of him. Mitch Marner aims his gaze at the overhead lighting. Everyone mumbles. It must be so awful being a millionaire rock star.
When Ryan O’Reilly arrived in Toronto via trade late in the season, he cracked that model. He brought an alarming air of positivity – wide-eyed, voice projecting. When the team lost, he didn’t take it like a death in the family.
That didn’t last. By the Tampa series, O’Reilly had learned to quiet down. By the Florida series, he was no longer a featured speaker. Maybe he’d twigged to the fact that nobody in Toronto wants to hear his take on the bright side of things.
This has been the Leafs’ way going back decades. Everyone accepts it, though it doesn’t make sense.
Being coach of the Leafs is an incredible, career-defining job. Regardless of how you do, it means you made it to the top. Former Toronto and current Florida coach Paul Maurice called it “a different beast like no other.”
A lot of responsibility, but it doesn’t follow that it must be borne like a cross up Golgotha. Which is the way every Leafs coach decides to do it.
Eventually, they all get to the same place. They dislike the pressure. They resent the questions. They hate the media and the daily grind. They despise that one loose comment can become a week of headlines.
They start snapping or giving non-answers or become permanently surly. Recall Mike Babcock’s constant sneer near the end.
Their look grows vacant. They aren’t having any fun.
Because the Leafs have tried everything else, how about trying fun?
There will be a lot of talk in the coming weeks about who should be in or out in Toronto. If I was given one deal to do, it wouldn’t be for any player. Changing this roster this late in the long-term-contract game is just as likely to unspool the Leafs as it is to make them even a little bit better.
Were it me, I’d trade for Jon Cooper.
Cooper has the Canadian pedigree (he’s from B.C., but no candidate is perfect). He has the varied life experience (he practised law before he took up hockey professionally). He’s got the Stanley Cup bonafides. Over the past five years, he’s become deeply familiar with the Leafs as currently constructed. He has watched this disaster from up close.
But the thing Cooper has that matters is an attitude. He likes hockey. He likes pressure. He likes being the centre of attention, without needing to suck up all the air in the room. He’s good with people. He speaks in English, which might be a first for a Leafs coach.
People forget 2019, the year Tampa had the best record in the league and then folded up like a compacting tent in the playoffs. Everybody figured Cooper was done.
The next year, he showed back up in Toronto early in the season. Same guy, same approach, same attitude. Tampa won the Cup that year.
If you want to change something about the Leafs without having to take the whole engine apart, change the culture. Put a grown-up in charge. Someone who wants the job. Not just the title. The job.
It can’t be another middle-aged guy who understands how to construct a power play.
Try someone who isn’t going to act from the first day of training camp like playing hockey in Toronto is a torture to be endured. Someone who understands playing here is a privilege that ought to be celebrated daily.
Generally speaking, they don’t trade coaches in the NHL. Is that really what’s going to stop the Leafs? “Nobody does that.”
You know what can be done by the Toronto Maple Leafs? Anything they want. Stop thinking like some podunk club from the back end of nowhere and start thinking like Manchester United. If everyone agrees you are “a different beast,” act that way.
The Leafs spent seven years acting like things happen to them – good things (they win the draft lottery) and bad things (the refs job them in the playoffs again). Before this all falls apart, try making things happen for a change.
A new centreman isn’t going to change much. A new leader might.