TAMPA, Fla. — It’s going to be Jon Cooper taking over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Not Lindy Ruff.
The speculation about a matchup tonight with their old boss was pretty hot after the Sabres’ practice here Monday afternoon but the official word came in the evening that the Bolts had promoted Cooper from their American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse to replace the fired Guy Boucher.
Media outlets across North America spent most of the last two days speculating on a Ruff-to-Tampa scenario less than five weeks after he was fired following a 16-year run in Buffalo. But it’s not going to happen.
The Lightning flew back from Winnipeg after Sunday’s loss to the Jets and did not practice Monday. They will take the ice at the Tampa Bay Times Forum this morning at 10:30 but Cooper will not coach the team tonight. General Manager Steve Yzerman will simply let assistants Dan Lacroix and Steve Thomas run the bench tonight against the Sabres as they did Sunday.
Tampa Bay’s next game isn’t until New Jersey visits Friday, and that would give Cooper a couple of practice days before making his debut. Sabres players admitted after Monday’s workout here they had heard the Ruff speculation and his presence on the opposing bench would have made for an awfully interesting Tuesday.
“It would make for a great story,” said a laughing Thomas Vanek. “Obviously we heard it too. It would be strange for sure. ... If it happens next year, it’s still going to be a weird feeling.”
“I hope he gets a job and get back in coaching soon,” said captain Jason Pominville. “We know he wants to be behind the bench. Hopefully he makes the best decision for him and his family when he does get asked. We know he’ll be back soon. I’m not even worried about that part.”
Interim coach Ron Rolston said he hasn’t been paying too much attention to the Lightning’s coaching search but acknowledged the Sabres should be facing a fired-up team in its first game at home since the change and an 0-3 road trip through Canada.
“They’ll have some added jump and emotionally they’ll be coming out hard, especially off their road trip wanting to play well,” Rolston said. “So we have to be ready for that and ready for a team with that excitement and emotion coming off the start.”
Ruff, who has done no interviews locally or with any out-of-town media since his farewell press conference Feb. 22 in First Niagara Center, could be simply waiting out the season and gauging all of his options after it’s over. Virtually any team that makes a coaching change is likely to have him on their wishlist.
“We know that the first opportunity that a coach gets fired Lindy is going to be in the mix and we’ll just wait and see what happens here,” said defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. “He had been around this organization forever and it’s going to be something awkward but special too to see him. For us as players we just have to go out there and do our jobs.”
“You see trades and sometimes you have to play against one of your teammates a week later or the next day,” said Steve Ott. “Likewise if a coach gets moved. I think it’s just the professionalism of being a hockey player and going out and playing hard against whomever it is.”
Rolston said he’s a friend of Cooper, who won the Calder Cup last year at Norfolk and has led Syracuse to an AHL-best 39-18-8 mark this season as of Monday.
“He’s won everywhere he’s been and had a lot of success. He does a great job,” Rolston said. “He’d be a great fit. They have a lot of their players here. It would be a transition where he could come in and know probably half the team. “
Rolston said there’s a chance that defenseman Andrej Sekera, who has missed the last four games with an upper body injury, could play tonight. The coach added that former No. 1 draft choice Mark Pysyk will stay for now rather than return to Rochester, leaving the Sabres with seven defensemen for this trip.
There’s no real change in the status of struggling winger Drew Stafford, who was scratched for Saturday’s 2-1 win in Montreal. Stafford has four goals and a minus-12 rating in 31 games.
“He’s just got to work hard and he’s got to get himself in a situation as a leader to be working hard every day,” Rolston said. “So we’ll see, but we’ve been having success lately and we’ll see what shakes tomorrow.”