Jon Cooper has the advantage over Sheldon Keefe. How could he not after back-to-back Stanley Cups and when considering the contents of the most impressive active resume in the NHL?
But between the Tampa Bay Lightning head coach and his counterpart with the Toronto Maple Leafs, it's not necessarily a matter of ability. It's the differing positions the coaches find themselves in during their first-round matchup that sets them apart the most.
Cooper's reality is enviable. Past success means a fraction of the pressure and little consequence for failure. It also means considerably more situational know-how.
Through four games of a series knotted at two apiece, making firm and accurate determinations has been a challenge for coaches and fans alike. As close as it has been in terms of results, the in-game situations have swerved far off the beaten path, which has created something of a backlog of information — or a lot of noise.
No series has spent less time in the common conditions of the sport. Leads built big and fast, and in a series featuring the single-most total penalties in a postseason defined by its tight whistle to this point, the Lightning and Leafs have spent fractionally less than 10 percent of the total time on the ice in tied scenarios at even strength.
That's a challenge on a coach, to pick and choose what's important, to glean the right information from a limited sample.
And so far Cooper and Keefe have taken a far different approach when processing that data.
Cooper has been markedly patient so far, which is quite clearly a luxury of having been in similar situations with a similar group before. He's made slight alterations within his middle six early in the series, in addition to one change to his bottom pair which may or may not be related to injury, but has otherwise held firm on his choices and the data accrued over the course of the season and several postseasons previous.
It sounds basic in practice, but the steady hand is a skill and something Cooper says he's learned over time to develop.
"I have learned to take a breath instead of holding my breath," Cooper said, when reflecting on his process and in-series management over the course of his career in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
He added: "I've got beliefs with our coaching staff on what we want to do and how we're going to do it, and we play it out that way. Not riding the emotions of a game, the series, or anything like that. It is complete and utter focus on getting the job done, and not trying to let outside noise, the white noise, affect what we're trying to do."
Keefe hasn't taken the wrong approach per se, but it sure is the opposite one.
Busy concocting new partnerships and units, Keefe has already reunited John Tavares and William Nylander before since splitting them up again. He hand-picked a second line for Game 2 that hadn't shared a single shift together in the regular season. He's had six different players work out of the fourth line but hasn't gone back to Kyle Clifford since Game 1 after stating firmly just last week that his best bottom unit is one that features the hard-nosed winger.
Most contentiously, he has moved away from the third pairing partnership between Mark Giordano and Timothy Liljegren that worked so well in the regular season, having turned back to Justin Holl. He'll continue with that pairing, he says, after ingesting Game 4 back for a fourth time — once live and three times on video.
Clearly unsettled, Keefe is aggressively reacting to the information coming at him, almost as though he's chasing the result, or at least searching for the right mix on the fly.
It is possible that what Keefe has laid out so far was all premeditated. Perhaps constant tinkering at the machine is the only way through the Lightning, and that Keefe is pulling the right strings to take advantage of home and road matchups.
But it's also possible that the reflexive decisions made will prevent his group from discovering traction through repeatable action.
Paralysis by analysis, it may be.
Only one strategy will prove to be the right one, ultimately.
But if either one is to spend the summer second-guessing their decisions, it's safe to say it won't be Cooper.
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