J-P Cote an Elite Player for Lightning Organization

Jean-Philippe Cote is not a household name.

The son of former Quebec Nordique Alain Cote, “J-P” has been with the Lightning organization for the past two seasons. A two-time Calder Cup winner, the defenseman is as much a reason for the Tampa Bay affiliate’s Cup runs these last two years as more recognizable names like Tokarski, Desjardins, Gudas, Panik, Johnson, and Palat.

Cote is 31 years old. He’s not a young prospect like Andrej Sustr or J. T. Brown in the early stages of their development. But Sustr and Brown don’t come close to their talent ceilings without Cote and players like him.

“He’s invaluable,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said last year when coaching Cote’s Syracuse Crunch.

"He's a guy who's been around the block and has played a few games in the NHL," Cooper said. "He's seen it all and done it all. You can't have enough of those guys around."

Cooper has kept Cote around throughout the Lightning’s training camp. The former Leafs ninth round pick has survived every round of cuts so far and is the only player left in camp who is not on an NHL contract.

Cote worked his way to the NHL a half-decade ago with the Canadiens, getting an 8-game cup of coffee. He went back to the AHL and eventually played in Germany for two years before landing back in North America in the ECHL with the Ontario Reign. General Manager Steve Yzerman and the Lightning signed him to an AHL deal and assigned him to Norfolk where he won the Calder Cup in 2011-2012.

He hasn’t been back in the NHL since his first taste in 2005-2006. In the regular season, that is.

Cote will play his fourth preseason game tonight. Though he could very well be reassigned to Syracuse later this weekend, he’s making Cooper’s decision a tough one.

“I don’t have an NHL contract so it’s not like I have anything to lose,” Cote said.

Cote knows his role, though, and it’s his selfless attitude that makes him an elite player at the role he plays.

“I know the philosophy of Jon Cooper and his staff, so I really care a lot about this organization. I just want to bring something. If it’s getting some of the guys here together or anything like that – anything where I can help I take a lot of pride in it.”

Cote said he’s grateful for the opportunity to be a part of Yzerman’s big picture. A veteran knows the value of such an opportunity.

“I’m really comfortable here, if I may say,” he said. “When I was younger, obviously my goal was to be in the NHL, and now having [taken] a step back, I take everything as a bonus.

“I was in Europe for a while [and] I didn’t know I’d have the kind of opportunity [again] here being at a pro camp at this time. If you would have asked me two years ago, I wouldn’t have said [that I would be at an NHL camp now]. I kind of approach it as everything as kind of a bonus now. If I get one more game in the NHL, that’s unbelievable. If I go back to Syracuse, I’ll help people. I know I found my game. I’m not as in the past: maybe like I was supposed to be in the NHL and [when I] went back to AHL maybe I wasn’t mentally as strong as I am now or I didn’t have the same philosophy. I remember having roller coaster years and I know I just wanted money in the bank. I’m comfortable going back there [now]. That’s what changed for me as a player.”

The Lightning have had a big impact on Cote as a person and player in his two-plus years with the club.

“I’m not going to lie to you, I really fell back in love with hockey the last few years,” he said.

“They’ve given me all kinds of tools. Barbara Underhill, the skating coach for the organization, I came to see her for three weeks last summer. It’s tools like that that they give the player and it’s up to us to grab it. I’m definitely a better player today than I would say I ever was and that’s all because of all the tools the organization gives you, and the confidence, and the staff – a guy like Jon Cooper, they’re really good for the guys. You want to go through a wall for these guys.”

Cote still strives for his “one more game,” but the focus still isn’t only on him.

“I want to stay close to the younger guys and make them feel welcome and it’s really something they want to build here and I know I can contribute to that. I want to perform my best and by doing that it pushes everybody to be a little better and just maybe [I can] bring the intensity higher and that’s really good for a professional camp.”

Cote’s intensity has been visible in preseason games as No. 60 is consistently among game leaders in hits. It’s that intensity, combined with his big picture understanding, approachability, and the respect he receives from his teammates that could make Cote a successful coach one day. He said he’s thought about it.

“I think it’d be a good transition for me,” Cote said. “As a coach, obviously these guys are giving I’m pretty sure 10 hours a day working on getting the team better. I think the challenge would be – and I think it’s something that comes with time – getting the team to buy into your idea. So, that’s something that I’m juggling. It could be a possibility, but I haven’t really fixed myself [on it]. Sometime it might be nice to turn the page and try something else, and if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work, it’s my fault, I’ve got other plans, but time is ticking, too. I’m not going to play for another 10 years, so I’ll be giving it some thought for sure.”

For now, Cote has role to perform. As a player and mentor he’s helping the Lightning organization win games – which is essential.

“The best development is winning,” Cooper said at the Lightning’s 2011 camp before Norfolk’s storied run. He also said he puts a lot of responsibility on vets like Cote to lead the developing youngsters.

Cote agrees and sees success for Tampa Bay in the future because of it.

“I learned a lot from being around the older guys,” Cote said. “The AHL is first of all a development league. The NHL teams want [prospects] to get better and move on to the NHL and that’s how I got better – playing against guys that played in the NHL and veterans. So, the longer you bring [in] these guys (like Mike Angelidis and Joey Mormina) and create a winning culture – like they’ve been doing here – it’s good for us, it’s good for the younger guys. There’s some development even when you’re losing, but I’ve been around hockey for a while, and the mood is way better when there are W’s on the board, so you love hockey way more and that’s something here that they really want. They want guys to have fun and enjoy what you’re doing and that winning feeling makes you work harder. You want some more. And that will show here in Tampa. I’m sure.”

Cote may or may not be on the team when that happens, but that won’t adjust his effort. For an organization that stresses a “world class” approach and teaches youngsters how to be professionals, there is no greater role model than J-P Cote.

True, “Jean-Philippe Cote” is not a household name – unless you live in homes with “Yzerman” or “Cooper” on the mailbox.