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Familiarity and respect among coaches left in NHL playoffs

Liam McHugh, Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp analyze power rankings for the Conn Smythe Trophy, where Andrei Vasilevskiy holds down the top spot after a standout performance in the first two rounds.

When Barry Trotz’s Washington Capitals knocked out Jon Cooper’s Tampa Bay Lightning on the way to the Stanley Cup in 2018, the two coaches talked that summer about how it all went down.

A similar conversation happened last fall after Cooper and the Lightning went through Trotz’s New York Islanders to win the Cup.

“(We) spoke about our teams and what we did well against each other, what we didn’t,” Cooper said. “You don’t usually get that with a ton of coaches, but Barry is a pretty open guy and for the most part I guess I am too, and we’re not afraid to share stuff with each other.”

They share the experience of attending the same Canadian prep school in a tiny Saskatchewan town (several years apart), but Trotz is a hockey lifer and Cooper was an attorney before switching professions. Vegas coach Peter DeBoer and Montreal’s Dominique Ducharme have very different levels of NHL experience but each came from junior hockey.

The four coaches left in the playoffs have meaningful connections but all took different paths to get to this point — a handful of wins from hoisting hockey’s holy grail.

“I’m always looking at the other guys and trying to pick up as much as I can everywhere,” said Ducharme, the least experienced of the quartet as a midseason replacement when the Canadiens fired Claude Julien. “(Coaching is) just about dealing with people. (Players are) older, more experienced, the dialogue might be different, but the goals and the ways to do it remain similar.”

The similarities between the coaches facing off in the semifinals are striking. Cooper and Trotz beam with pride about playing for the Notre Dame Hounds, while DeBoer and Ducharme have bonded over coaching in the Canadian Hockey League and being on world junior staffs with Canada.

Even though DeBoer is now on his fourth team in 12 years in the NHL, he and Ducharme have talked about what they have in common and swapped some ideas along the way.

“The one thing about coming up the way we both have, you have to learn to teach and communicate: If you coach junior hockey for an extended period, I was almost 15 years, and I think Dom was at least 10, you’re dealing with young kids, and the messaging has to be simple and straightforward and has to get to the point,” DeBoer said. “Those are tools you take with you when you move on to the NHL. I’ve got a lot of respect for guys that kind of pay their dues on the way up, and he’s one of those guys.”

Trotz certainly paid his dues, going from an assistant at the University of Manitoba through scouting and into the American Hockey League before getting his first NHL head job with expansion Nashville in 1998.

Cooper was still practicing law at that point. It wasn’t until 1999 that he moved into coaching full time at the high school level, and much like Trotz, climbed the ladder through the AHL until Tampa Bay promoted him in 2013.

“He’s an excellent coach,” Trotz said of Cooper. “I think with Jon, his path’s a little different, obviously. He was a lawyer and was coaching hockey as well and had to make, I’ll say, a life decision or a career decision and he’s chosen well. Obviously, he can always go back to law if he ever decides not to coach.”

Don’t expect that any time soon, not after leading the Lightning to the championship last season and having the deep, talented team rolling toward another final. Tampa Bay is a polar opposite of Montreal, which may not have made the playoffs if not for Ducharme, who has fans all over the NHL.

“I know how good a coach he is,” said Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon, who worked alongside Ducharme on Canada’s staff at the 2016 world junior tournament. “I’ve followed his career since then. I was super excited for him to get the opportunity with the Canadiens and not surprised the impact that he’s had.”

Ducharme and the Canadiens are a surprise contender, but Vegas isn’t. DeBoer has taken two other teams to the final — New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016 — but is looking for his first title, which would tie Trotz and Cooper. All four coaches are candidates for Canada’s Olympic staff next winter in Beijing.

That would only cement the connections they have in a coaching fraternity that is already very close.

“I have the utmost respect for Barry,” Cooper said. “Take all the coaching stuff aside, the X’s and O’s and all that stuff, you just have respect for good people, and Barry’s good people.”