TORONTO — At the highest levels of hockey, most head coaches are loathe to talk at length about the opposition. The focus, especially at the podium, is on what goes on in our dressing room. We need to take care of our side of the puck.
At its extreme, this line in the verbal sand is drawn in sharp tones and can border on the ridiculous or the hilarious.
Like when Team USA’s 2016 World Junior Championship coach Ron Wilson said he did zero research on Team Russia’s roster in advance of that tournament’s elimination game.
Working on a Scott Hartnell profile in 2012, back when he was part of the Philadelphia Flyers’ top line, I had the silly notion that John Tortorella, then bench boss of the New York Rangers, might provide a good quote on Hartnell’s pesty play.
“I don’t talk about other teams’ players,” Tortorella snapped, shutting my lips. This was at the love-in that is the NHL All-Star Game, where Hartnell was, albeit temporarily, on Tortorella’s team.
But Jon Cooper is not most coaches. He seemed fine with talking about the youth movement of the last-place Toronto Maple Leafs, even after they defeated his worlds-better-on-paper Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1 Wednesday night.
“They work hard. Just because they’re not in the National Hockey League on a regular basis [doesn’t mean much]. A lot of those guys are going to be National Hockey League players. They’ve done the right thing playing in the minors, and now they’re getting their chance,” Cooper said.
After the defending Eastern Conference champs suffered a blow to their pride, Lightning veteran Brian Boyle praised the Leafs’ defensive discipline. Ryan Callahan was impressed with the young players’ raw talent and hunger.
The under-24 Leafs with nine games in the uniform — Zach Hyman (three goals), William Nylander (two goals), Nikita Soshnikov (two goals), Connor Carrick (three points) — have all made an impact in a small window of opportunity. And Toronto is doing its best to improve the Edmonton Oilers’ lottery odds by winning three of its last four games.
“They’re getting to play a little more relaxed hockey because they’re learning right now, and it’s a short season for them. They’re not going through the 82-game grind that can get guys,” Cooper observed.
“I like what they’re doing. They’re working real hard. They came in to win a hockey game. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing or who the names are on the back. They came to win.”
Considering Cooper himself was a late-season call-up from the American League, replacing fired Guy Boucher in late March of the 2012-13 season, he speaks from experience.
The 2013 Lightning had long played themselves out of contention. It was then that they called up well-groomed rookies from a strong Syracuse Crunch group for an end-of-season look. Tyler Johnson wet his feet with 16 games. Ondrej Palat got in for 14. Two years later, they were essential to the Lightning’s run to the Stanley Cup final.
While he faulted his own club for a blown opportunity Tuesday, Cooper — the only opposing NHL coach to have faced Nylander & Co. twice — sees the promise in a rebuilding Leafs team.
“They just went into Detroit and beat a desperate Detroit team 1-0. They’re playing hard. They’ve got some structure to their game, and if you’re not going to work for it, it’s going to be hard to score,” Cooper said. “Their goaltender [Jonathan Bernier] is playing well. They’re feeling good about themselves. Good for them. They’re building something here.”