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Cleaning house was right move for Tampa Bay Lightning

Players like Marty St. Louis, who turns 35 in June, endure another playoff-less season.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Players like Marty St. Louis, who turns 35 in June, endure another playoff-less season.

TAMPA

First lesson of a power struggle:

Make sure the boss actually cares who wins.

Because it just looks silly when a coach and a general manager can't figure out who deserves more acclaim for a hockey team with too few victories and too many humiliations.

So when it came time to decide whether to choose Rick Tocchet or Brian Lawton or the status quo Monday, new Lightning owner Jeff Vinik selected none of the above. And, of course, that was the correct answer.

In the end, it was not worth the hassle to figure out whether Tocchet failed to win with Lawton's players or whether Lawton failed to give Tocchet enough players. Turns out, it was easier to conclude the coach and the GM had failed each other.

Which means the Lightning is once again searching for a new coach. And a new general manager. And, in a broader sense, a new identity.

For that might have been Tampa Bay's greatest shortcoming in 2009-10. From one night to the next, you were never quite sure what to expect from this team. Was it a collection of up-tempo, skill players? Was it a team of fighters and grinders? Was it the team that held opponents to 13 goals in a nine-game stretch or the team that gave up 40 goals in the next nine games?

That's where the lack of harmony between Lawton and Tocchet became a problem. When things started to go poorly, everyone in the locker room and the front office started positioning themselves for the collapse that was sure to come.

And the rift was not just last month's assistant coach fiasco. Tocchet wanted certain types of players, and Lawton didn't care to listen. It was like one guy looking for Toyota parts while the other guy was trying to fix a Honda.

Lawton and Tocchet did not need to swap funny stories late into the night at the hotel bar, but they did need to communicate better. Lawton needed to get more input from his head coach, and Tocchet needed to realize a bunker mentality was not going to save him.

"To me, organizational structure is extremely important. Chain of command," Vinik said. "And I want an organization in place where everybody has the same values, everybody has the same vision, all oars going in the same direction."

Which is why a fresh start makes the most sense today.

This franchise needs to figure out a direction, and the players need the proper compass points. That means the co-owners are not squabbling. That means the coach and the GM are not butting heads. That means the plan does not change from month to month.

The season might have been a complete mess, but the roster is not as bad as the standings would indicate. You start off with Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier, and you're already in better shape than half the NHL.

Yes, the Lightning needs a new wing on Lecavalier's line. Yes, a couple of quality defensemen are a must. Yes, the Lightning must make a run at free agent goaltender Marty Turco. That might seem like a lot of upheaval, but Tampa Bay can not afford to be passive.

St. Louis is soon to be 35 and in the final year of a contract. Lecavalier is about to turn 30. Mattias Ohlund will be 34 next season. Even worse, the constant losing is growing old for a somewhat limited fan base.

You see, the greatest shame is the Lightning has already wasted so much time. Some level of rebuilding might have been inevitable after the Stanley Cup in 2004, but the franchise has been allowed to revert to its gory days with all the shenanigans of the past two seasons. And it seems all that was once gained in this marketplace has now been lost.

That makes these upcoming hires among the most critical in franchise history. Hockey in Sun Belt cities remains an experiment without validation. Once again, there are rumors of relocation in Phoenix, Atlanta and Florida. Tampa Bay has not yet entered the conversation, but who knows where the story goes if the losses continue in the standings and the ledgers.

The last time the Lightning went three consecutive seasons without reaching the playoffs was from 1999 to 2002. The last time attendance dipped so low was 2000-01.

The last time Tampa Bay began four consecutive seasons with a different head coach was … heck, not even the pathetic Lightning teams of the late 1990s were that dysfunctional.

Yet another fresh start was ultimately the right way to go. Even if Lawton deserved an ownership group that provided more money and less interference. Even if Tocchet deserved a general manager who was willing to listen to his opinions.

Because, ultimately, the fans are the ones paying the freight.

And they deserve better than what they have been given.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Cleaning house was right move for Tampa Bay Lightning 04/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 12, 2010 9:26pm]
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