Big season coming for Tampa Bay Lightning and its relationship with AHL Norfolk
To say this is a big season in the relationship between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Norfolk Admirals, Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate, would be a bit of an understatement. The five-year deal between the clubs has an out clause for both sides after three seasons, and next season will be the third.
"Oh, sure," Admirals owner Ken Young said, "there will be evaluations on both sides."
The relationship is in no way contentious. Young said he has "no problem with the way (the Lightning) has been treating us." And he understands the troubles Tampa Bay has gone through, from an ownership squabble, to trying to overcome years of poor drafting, to last season's epidemic of injuries that forced the big club to raid Norfolk's roster for healthy bodies. Lightning GM Brian Lawton said Young has been "gracious."
But there are concerns of both sides of this equation.
For the Admirals, it is consecutive seasons out of the playoffs, both with the Lightning, after 18 straight seasons making the playoffs.
"At this point the community is very tired of not having a competitive team," said Young, who also is president of Ovations Food Services in Lutz. "And, realistically, the past two years we've been out of that race by Dec. 1."
Consequently, Young said, season ticket sales have plummeted from 1,900 to about 1,500.
"We need to do a better job down there, and we recognize it," Lightning GM Brian Lawton said. "But that process wasn't going to be instantaneous."
Indeed, it takes time to restore organizational depth depleted by a decade of bad drafting, and Lawton said he believes next season's team will be stocked with more legitimate prospects. The goaltending, for sure, will be better with Riku Helenius and Dustin Tokarksi, who has done nothing but win as a junior. Still, Lawton has said the financially strapped Lightning will provide Norfolk with only 20 players.
More troublesome for Lawton is the travel the Admirals must endure. Their closest opponents inside the division (Hershey, Pa.) is more than 200 miles away. Of course, there is the school of thought such bus trips can be good bonding experiences for a young team.
Whatever happens, Lawton said he is "committed" to seeing if a deeper, more stable, roster will do the trick before making any evaluations or determinations about the future relationship between the clubs. One more point about the out clause in the contract: Young said whichever side might want to get out is obligated to help the other side find a replacement affiliate.
"I want to give it a shot with this group of prospects," Lawton said. "Everything has to be elevated."
"There can't be any excuses anymore," Young said. "We need to have a competitive club. Our community is tired of it."