Norfolk owner Ken Young says he understands why Tampa Bay Lightning took his coach
The owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning's AHL affiliate in Norfolk feels his fans' pain after losing the coach that turned around the team's season. But Ken Young said that is part of being associated with an NHL team.
The Admirals, 13-2-2 under Jim Johnson after he took over for the fired Darren Rumble, are in the middle of a playoff push of their own. Norfolk, like the Lightning, has been out of the postseason the past two years. So when Johnson was elevated to Tampa Bay assistant in the sequence that eventually got Lightning assistant Wes Walz fired, Norfolk, all of a sudden, was without its head coach.
"It's tough," Young said by cell phone from a cab in Las Vegas. "But I think if a GM, if Brian (Lawton, the Lightning's GM) thinks that's the best thing to get his tea to the playoffs, you have to do what he thinks is the best thing. I guess someone can ask with the Admirals playing so well, did that need to happen? But you come down to crunch time in the NHL and you're fighting for a playoff spot, you've got to do what's the best thing for you to do."
Applauded for his reasonable approach, Young said, "It really is the way I feel. I want to win as much as the next guy. And I understand hard-core fans feel that way. We've had a rough few years here, and all of a sudden to have the team jell and win 90-something percent of its points the past five weeks, that's something. I hope at least to some extent it will continue."
After Walz turned down the Norfolk job and was fired, Admirals assistant Leigh Mendelson took over the team until a decision is made on a new coach. That likely will not happen until next week.
This is an important year for the relationship between the Admirals and Lightning. In the third season of a five-year deal, either side can opt out of the contract after this season. Young said no decisions have been made, and none will be until the end of the season. He said he feels good that with incoming owner Jeff Vinik, the Lightning franchise may finally be getting some stability.
More from Thursday's practice: Lightning coach Rick Tocchet reiterated he did not agree with firing Walz or the way bringing in Johnson was handled. "No, I don't agree," he said. "Brian knows. I told him. Wes Walz is a good friend and a really good coach. He's not the fall guy. He's a really good coach. It's important for me to say that because he's a good friend of mine and it's unfortunate. ... Tocchet said he still is deciding how to use Johnson. And Johnson said he is ready to do whatever Tocchet asks. "I came here to work for the company," Johnson said. "I'm here to help Rick and the staff in any way they need. Right now, I'm going through film. That's what I'm here for, whatever Rick and his staff wants." With his expertise in the penalty kill -- Norfolk was third in the league at 87.1 percent while the Lightning is 22nd in the NHL at 80.5 percent -- Johnson said he would like to be on the ice working with the unit. But he said, for now, he is content to be breaking down film and offer opinions. "I think there are some things we can do a little different," Johnson said. "But, again, I'm just going to share ideas. It will be Rick's decision as to what he wants to do. I think we can make some minor tweaks. Right now, it's me looking at ways we can improve. If I can do that to help the coaching staff, tat's our goal." ... Tocchet did not sugarcoat the difficulty in integrating Johnson into what is a tight staff. "I'm going to have to think of different ways right now," Tocchet said. "It will take chemistry, and we formed a really good chemistry here. I have to try to figure a way to make the staff move on, and the team. I'll come to that and we'll figure some things out. But, honestly, my focus right now is on the 23 guys in the room. Those guys deserve my full attention." ... With a at least one Lightning player guaranteed to play for Olympic gold on Sunday, the turnaround time to get back for Tuesday's game against the Flyers will be imperative. "We've got the Philadelphia Flyers and they're ahead of us in the playoff push, and we need al hands on deck right now," Tocchet said. "Absolutely they're in the lineup. Once the medal, hopefully, goes around one of those guys' necks, get back here. We need you."