DENVER - When the Tampa Bay Lightning somehow was swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019, the team could have easily blown it all up.
The top team in the league losing to a club that barely made the playoffs. The Presidents' Trophy winners won an incredible 62 games, matching the record set by the Detroit Red Wings in 1995-96.
It was embarrassing. And questions quickly emerged, questioning if the team was being run by the right people.
But Lightning owner Jeff Vinik kept things status quo, believing in GM Julien Brisebois, who took over the team ahead of the season after serving below Steve Yzerman. Brisebois kept the group together, chalking it all up to just a bad four-game stretch.
The team was too good to just fall apart. And patience proved to be key.
Three seasons later, the Bolts are looking for a third consecutive Stanley Cup final with Jon Cooper as coach and Brisebois still in charge as GM. The Lightning are so close to becoming a true dynasty, and the first team to win three years in a row in the salary cap era -- considered to be the most competitive era of NHL hockey.
Brisebois was brought into the Lightning fold in 2010 as the assistant GM before hiring Jon Cooper to coach the AHL's Norfolk Admirals just months before the start of the 2010-11 season. His first task? Getting the Admirals coaching staff in order, and that started with bringing in Cooper after spending two years with the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers as GM and coach.
"I remember when I interviewed for this job, it was August," Cooper said with a smile during Stanley Cup media day. "The joke was, 'Clearly they've run out of people to interview if I'm getting this interview in August.'
"I think we had a pretty good rapport during the interview back in 2010, to the point where I remember I was going to take a cab back to the airport. He (Brisebois) said he would drive me back and then we got lost. It was tight to make my flight and I didn't want to say like, 'What the heck's going on here,' because I had just interviewed with him. I thought he knew the area."
Turns out, Brisebois didn't.
"I hadn't even moved to Tampa yet," he said as the two laughed together.
The duo became an immediate success, with the Admirals winning the Calder Cup in 2011-12, highlighted by an insane 28-game winning streak during the regular season. Cooper won the league's top coaching honor at the end of the season and was on pace for that again in 2012-13 before replacing coach Guy Boucher atop the Lightning's bench. Two years into his NHL tenure, he led the Lightning to one of its best seasons ever, eventually losing the Stanley Cup final to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Since then, Cooper has become one of the NHL's best coaches, and Brisebois has gained a reputation as one of the smartest GMs in the league for his ability to keep a competitive group together, no matter the struggles. Through all the ups and downs, they've stuck together to create one of the best teams we've seen in decades.
A third straight Stanley Cup victory would only further cement that. Brisebois inherited much of the core we see in this lineup today, but he's had enough challenges along the way to put any GM to shame. But he continues to thrive under the pressure, and extending the rules to the limit to make it work. Don't like how he manages LTIR? Too bad. He's doing it all legally within the NHL rulebook, and better than anyone else.
"I believe the relationship we fostered and the communication we had in the minors transferred into the NHL and I think, when you get to this point, there has to be major trust," Cooper said.
And that trust is huge. Through the ups and downs, they've managed to make it work, no matter the lineup.
"From the very, very beginning and the players that we kept our first year, the players we acquired in years after that, and this was all in the minors," Cooper said. "I just knew that I was with somebody I could trust. If you're going to have success in the league, there has to be that trust."
Looking back at 2019, Brisebois said it was the motivation the team needed to build upon its already strong core and simply trust the process. He didn't make any drastic moves, fire any coaches, anything. He stuck with the course he believed in, and it paid off.
“It never crossed my mind to make any drastic changes,” BriseBois said. "The whole 2019 thing, it was a really, really bad seven, eight days. It was out of character for our group. Our group had gone far to the playoffs before with Jon as the head coach with this core."
"Here we are. It's worked," Cooper added. "I trust everything he does. Even when I'm questioning it in my head, I'm like, 'Nope. It'll work out.' It's the communication and the trust. I have grown accustomed with him and he's yet to let us down."
The Bolts still have a long road ahead to win a third Stanley Cup, something that's unthinkable during the salary cap era. They're down 0-2 heading home, where they've been so good during the post-season. But when the players trust their bosses, and the players themselves are as elite as they are -- and able to continuously dig them out of any holes they find themselves in -- they'll find a way to chase history.