Jon Cooper Should Be Model New Jersey Devils Strive For In Coaching Search

Jon Cooper’s secret sauce as a head coach is the one thing the New Jersey Devils have long lacked in the role: Stability
Florida Panthers v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Three
Florida Panthers v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Three / Julio Aguilar/GettyImages

The New Jersey Devils' head coaching search is underway, with GM Tom Fitzgerald looking to fill the void left by Lindy Ruff's firing. They currently have Travis Green, but he's still sitting here with the interim tag.

Since February 9, 2022, when Canadiens GM Kent Hughes replaced Dominque Ducharme with Martin St. Louis, all but five of the NHL's head coaches have changed. In just over two years, 27 of the 32 teams have looked to replace their head coach with a better candidate. 

Among the five who have survived the blood bath of turnover as an NHL head coach, the longest-tenured head coach in the league is Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. He has been the Lightning’s head coach since March 2013—an almost unprecedented decade-plus as a head coach in the modern NHL. 

Cooper has rewarded that loyalty by becoming one of the most successful head coaches in NHL history, with two Stanley Cup victories, three Final appearances, and a .640 point percentage that tops other coaching greats like Bruce Boudreau, Joel Quenneville, and Ken Hitchcock.

For a brief time after the Lightning’s recent ouster from the playoffs by the Florida Panthers, some speculated Cooper’s time in Tampa might finally be coming to a close.  That speculation was quickly nipped in the bud when the Fourth Period's David Pagnotta reported that Cooper had signed an extension that would keep him with the team through the 2025-2026 season.

While Cooper is not available to the Devils in their head coaching search, the Devils should be using him as the model to which they compare all the candidates they interview this offseason.

What the Devils have long lacked in their head coaches over the past decade is the ability to motivate the team to consistent, reliable results. The 2017 and 2018 Devils coached by John Hynes were at war with themselves, at times looking like a dark-horse contender, while at others looking like the lottery team they eventually turned into. 

Similarly, the 2023-24 Devils led by Lindy Ruff and later Travis Green failed to return to the consistent dominance of the 2022-23 season. They failed to win more than three games in a row all season. Their Rolling 10-Game xG% chart shows the wild swing in inconsistency. One week, the Devils could generate nearly 58% of the expected goals, while the next week, as low as 47%.

The Jon Cooper-lead Lightning, on the other hand, have been a model of consistent excellence. They have made the playoffs every year under Cooper except 2016-17 when they missed by a point despite putting up 94 points in the regular season. The 2023-24 Lightning team displays this consistency. After starter Andrei Vasilevskiy returned, their Rolling 10-Game xG% rarely dipped below 46% or above 54%.

The Devils have also lacked accountability for mistakes and poor performance in recent seasons. Lindy Ruff stated the need for accountability so often that it has nearly lost its meaning entirely. However, Lindy Ruff’s call for accountability often only applied to the players, not himself. 

As Ruff said in his introductory press conference:

Accountability should not start with the players, though, but flow down from the coaching staff to the locker room. That’s how a coach builds trust with his team. 

Jon Cooper has shown the ability to take accountability repeatedly over the past decade, none more obvious than his recent apology for sexist comments he made in the aftermath of the frustrating Game 5 loss that eliminated the Lightning from the Stanley Cup Playoffs:

"As you know, it was a pretty disappointing series loss the other night. I made an inappropriate analogy about goalies in skirts. It’s one of those moments if you could just reach back and grab the words back, I would have. As a father of two, especially a massive supporter of women’s hockey, I have girls that play sports. Quite frankly, it was wrong and I had go and explain myself to my girls. I sincerely apologize to all I offended. It's pained me more than the actual series loss itself.

Jon Cooper

These are the actions of a person with the humility to know when he’s not in the right, the self-awareness to realize you’re not always the smartest person in the room, and the open-mindedness to listen to and consider contrasting opinions which could make you better. These traits, just as much as his obvious hockey acumen, have allowed him to last more than a decade in one of the most turbulent jobs in professional sports. 

Whoever the Devils select as their head coach must display these qualities if the Devils want a chance to break their 21-year Stanley Cup drought. The rumored Mike Sullivan acquisition, the possible pending free-agent Rod Brind’Amour, and other under-the-radar candidates may be a great match from a hockey scheme fit perspective. But if they can’t provide the stability and consistency the Devils need in a head coach, the Devils won’t be lifting the Stanley Cup any time soon.