The Norfolk Admirals just returned home from Toronto on Monday after capturing the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup, and more celebrations are set for Wednesday. So coach Jon Cooper has been a little busy.
Too busy, for now, to discuss his future, but the hottest name among young coaches available for NHL vacancies could be a strong candidate for the Washington Capitals.
And the 44-year-old is willing to listen.
“If they called, for sure,” Cooper said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I’ve put myself in a position that if I could have an opportunity to go to an NHL team that was the right fit for me and for management, I’d be crazy not to look at that.”
Much like ex-Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, Cooper has won everywhere he has gone. In addition to the Calder Cup his Admirals wrapped up Saturday with a sweep, he led teams to championships in the United States Hockey League, North American Hockey League, Central States Hockey League and even at the high school level in Michigan.
Jason Herter, who coached the Fargo Force of the USHL before becoming an assistant at Minnesota-Duluth, first met Cooper at Notre Dame High School in Saskatchewan and has watched him succeed at every level. He said it’s not by accident.
“I don’t know what NHL guys think about who they look for in coaches, but I can just tell you about Jon himself, what I think, being a colleague, and that is, whatever it is, he’s got it,” Herter said. “Whether it’s how he manages relationships between the team, how he delivers his message to the team, everybody I know that’s played for him in the past and present that I’ve talked to absolutely loved playing hockey for Jon Cooper. I don’t know how much of a [tough guy] he is or not, but his message gets across to the players no matter what level it is.”
As far as moving to the NHL, Cooper said it’s all about the “right situation.”
“Let’s be honest, if I was standing outside looking at me, I would probably sit here and say, ‘Well, look how much he’s won the last two years, the streak, he won the Calder Cup.’ I’m probably a chic name right now. And in this business, that’s good,” he said. “Sometimes it’s time to move and sometimes you’ve got to strike when the iron’s hot, if it happens.”
George McPhee has hired four coaches as general manager in Washington — Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon, Boudreau and Dale Hunter — and none had experience as a head man in the NHL. There’s certainly an argument to be made that this veteran team could use an experienced coach in the vein of Marc Crawford or Los Angeles Kings assistant John Stevens. But Cooper’s 55-18-3 record this season, which included a 28-game winning streak, should help push him into consideration.
He acknowledged not knowing what management was looking for in a coach, counting the Caps and the other team with a vacancy, the Edmonton Oilers. But Cooper could be ripe for either chance.
“Look at one franchise that has been struggling in the standings a little bit but is just piling up No. 1 draft picks who looks like in the next few years is ready to take off,” he said. “And you’ve got another organization that’s right there, a playoff team every year and on the cusp of going to the final four if not a Cup Final. So they’re two extremely, I think, great situations to go into.”
Cooper is a native of Prince George, British Columbia, though he has the Chesapeake area of Virginia as his residence while coaching in Norfolk. That could change regardless if he gets an NHL gig, it has been widely reported that the Tampa Bay Lightning are switching AHL affiliates to the Syracuse Crunch.
“I’m still under contract with Tampa. That decision’s above my pay grade,” he said. “I’m going to follow the team wherever they go. I’m obligated to. We’ll see how everything plays out.”
Things could play out with Cooper following a path similar to that of Boudreau with the Caps, Kirk Muller of the Carolina Hurricanes and Kevin Dineen of the Florida Panthers; coaches who jumped from AHL success to NHL opportunity.
Cooper, like McPhee, has a law degree, though he closed his practice in 2003 to focus on coaching. He said he met McPhee and Boudreau through former Caps PR director Nate Ewell at the 2010 draft in Los Angeles. Whether there are upcoming conversations about coaching the Caps remains to be seen, but with McPhee seemingly in no rush to make a move and Cooper now available to talk, the possibility exists.
Cooper was hired for the Norfolk job Aug. 9, 2010, and in fewer than two years was celebrating a championship. The New Jersey Devils hired coach Peter DeBoer on July 19, 2011, and he was two victories from winning the Stanley Cup.
Whether Cooper is a perfect fit for Caps will be decided in the coming weeks.
“There’s a lot of good coaches out there. I just think you’re talking about a guy who has a track record and a good situation to go to,” Herter said. “I think he’d do a heck of a job. He’ll find a way. He’s that kind of kid.”