TAMPA — The playoffs, or more specifically, how much success a team has once they start, is the best judgment of a season.
Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper would know, having hoisted the Stanley Cup with his players in each of the past two years.
Cooper has plenty of respect for what the Maple Leafs have accomplished in the 2021-22 National Hockey League regular season, establishing team records for wins and points.
Yet Cooper takes the same line that others rightfully have. It’s about what the Leafs may or may not do once the post-season tournament begins that their season should be fully viewed.
Of course, it might be on the shoulders of Cooper and his team at some point to try to send the Leafs home for the summer, potentially in the first round.
Once the post-season starts, the Leafs will try to forget that they have not advanced beyond the first round in each of the past five years.
“I don’t think anything you say about the Leafs is going to matter to anybody in this room outside of where I am standing, unless they do better in the playoffs,” Cooper said on Thursday morning. “I think everybody here is saying that about them.
“For me, I see a hell of a hockey team. They have been a hell of a hockey team that has run into some bad breaks come the spring and it seems that, for whatever reason, they haven’t got over the hump yet, but they have a team that definitely can.
“I think there are some similarities (from past Leafs teams) and they have kept their core together. The Leafs beat good teams, they play with structure.
“It’s for you guys to judge. I think they’re as good a team as we have played all year. But again, they probably will be judged more on how they do in the spring.”
MARNER’S MARCH TO 100
Before the Leafs and Lightning met at Amalie Arena, Mitch Marner needed five points to reach 100 for the first time in his NHL career.
That hasn’t been lost on the guys he goes to work with every night.
“He’s a great teammate and a close friend,” defenseman Morgan Rielly said. “He plays hard. He plays the right way. He’s good defensively. He cares about the penalty kill and he cares about taking care of the puck.
“He’s not all about the flash. I know he gets lots of attention for the plays that he makes and how he plays with his speed and his linemates. He plays right.”
Cooper has fond memories of coaching Marner. In 2017, when Canada won silver at the world hockey championship, Cooper was behind the bench and Marner was one of his best players, finishing second in team scoring.
Cooper has as much respect for Marner’s approach to the game as he does for the winger’s talent level.
“He’s still the same kid,” Cooper said. “Still a big smile on his face from him. He’s as creative as anybody in this league. I have competed.
“He can play in all situations and he’s a ton of fun to be around. I haven’t noticed any of that come out of him since I’ve been watching him.
“Again, a lot gets judged on the playoffs, but I don’t think anybody would ever say they would take Mitch Marner off their team.
“I love that kid. I think he’s a hell of a hockey player, a hell of a person and hopefully I get to work with him again someday. A big fan of Mitch Marner.”
Marner gets to 100 points this season, he would be the fourth Leafs player to do so in team history, joining Auston Matthews, who hit the mark last week, Doug Gilmour and Darryl Sittler.
“You try not to think about it, but it definitely would be a cool thing,” Marner said.
Growing up, you always wanted to play in this league and do something great. We have a lot of tough games left, so I just make sure it’s about coming in every game ready to play.”
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman on his pick for the Norris Trophy: “The top two are (Roman) Josi (of the Nashville Predators) and (Cale) Makar (of the Colorado Avalanche). It will be a tough vote this year, but I’d probably go with Josi.” … Zach Bogosian spent just one season with the Leafs before heading back to Tampa, but he said his memories of him are good ones, despite the Leafs’ collapse against Montreal in the first round last spring. Bogosian’s family returned to Minnesota last February, and he moved in with Marner. “We did well together,” Bogosian said. “Him and Steph, his fiancee, they’re just two great people.” Marner acknowledged that some video-game sessions, usually Call of Duty, would go late into the night. “He’s an awesome dude, a lot of fun to be around,” Marner said. “It was nice driving to the game with someone, having someone around that you can talk to after games, break down the game with.” … Hedman doesn’t buy the idea that fatigue might set in for the Lightning in the playoffs, considering their recent long Cup runs. “Mentally and physically, I think we are prepared to do another long run,” Hedman said. “There will be a lot of other teams that think the same way. Everyone wants to win.”