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Don't blame new Tampa Bay Lightning owner if he cleans house

The goal is still there. After all this time, and after all this misery, it can still be reached.

Do not talk of the odds, and do not pay attention to the pressure, for you have seen the Lightning, and deep down you know it is capable of pulling this off. It has the goaltending for it, and the defense, and the right amount of depth on its scoring lines.

A break here or there and sure enough, the Lightning can claim last place in the Eastern Conference. Again.

Ah, the poor Lightning. Every day this team seems to get a little worse, and every game its flaws become more and more clear. The Lightning has spent the past six weeks sinking through the standings like a rock in a pond, losing by a little and losing by a lot, dropping past this team and that one. If Steven Stamkos weren't having such a wonderful season, the temptation would be to ask the NHL to call the rest of the season off via the mercy rule.

Yet, in the long run, perhaps it is not so bad that this team is so bad.

At least this way, new owner Jeff Vinik can see how much work there is to do.

If you think this season looks bad through your eyes, you can only imagine it what it must look like through his. I imagine him sitting and watching in horror, then turning to a friend and saying, "You know, maybe I didn't get as good a bargain as I thought. I should have some change coming.''

I picture him watching his team's defense and asking, "Doesn't Sabby Piscitelli play for the Bucs?'' I imagine him looking at the goaltending and saying, "And doesn't Dioner Navarro play for the Rays?'' And on and on.

In other words, Jeff, you're going to need a bigger shovel.

At this point, could anyone blame Vinik if he decided to walk into the building and make it rain pink slips? He has said he wants a new CEO, and if that CEO wants a new general manager, and if that general manager wants a new coach, and if that new coach wants new players, well, who can blame any of them? Except for Stamkos, this isn't the time for anyone to ask for a contract extension.

Oh, the Lightning fooled us for a while. Go back to Feb. 10, when the team was in second place in the Southeast Division and Vinik was still at the checkout counter trying to buy. The Lightning was in sixth place in the conference, in fine shape for the playoffs. It was two points ahead of the Flyers (it is now eight points behind), five points ahead of Atlanta (it is now six behind), 12 points ahead of Carolina (now one behind), four ahead of the Rangers (now four behind).

Since then, the Lightning has gone from chasing the playoffs to chasing a high draft pick. It has been like watching a team go through a season in reverse.

Now, ask yourself: What if the Lightning had hung around for another month or two? What if it had finished just short of the playoffs? What if — and this is going to take some imagination — it somehow snuck in for a brief stay?

Would that have changed things? Possibly. Vinik might have fooled himself into thinking this team is closer to being a contender than it is. He might have looked at general manager Brian Lawton and said, "You know, he got a team to the playoffs after it had lost 109 times the previous two seasons.''

He might have looked at coach Rick Tocchet and decided that if Tocchet had better players, he would have better results. He might not think the roster needs upgrading as desperately as it does.

Instead, this finish has pointed out every shortcoming of this franchise. It has been a power-point demonstration of why the Lightning remains among the least essential teams in hockey.

Frankly, it's hard to see how Lawton survives this, especially when you consider that the team's three biggest needs — a goaltender, a puck-moving defenseman and a sturdy wing to play with Vinny Lecavalier — have been the team's biggest needs for a while now.

And let's face it. That late February power play by Lawton has backfired. Since Lawton pushed assistant coach Wes Walz overboard — over the objections of Tocchet — the Lightning has gone 5-11, from one point out of the final playoff spot to eight. When they write the history of the Lightning, that power play will go down with the blurry fax, Art Williams' studs-or-duds speech and Barry Melrose's 16-day wander through the locker room as regrettable decisions.

As for Tocchet, well, he's a tougher call. In February, in fact, most of us thought he was doing a fine job. But in the NHL, finishing last, losing 50 games (counting overtime losses) and fading at the finish are usually firing offenses. If Lawton goes, Tocchet may be in trouble, too, unless he has a connection to the new general manager.

After this kind of collapse, who isn't?

For Vinik, however, the need to clean house shouldn't be to assign blame for what happened this year. It's to avoid it happening again next year.

There is something to be said for a solid, cohesive front office where everyone starts from the same point and works toward the same goal, where everyone knows their role, where every follows the same blueprint. It has been a long time since the Lightning was that kind of franchise.

With a different owner, perhaps it will have a different approach.

Someday, perhaps it will have a different finish, too.

Don't blame new Tampa Bay Lightning owner if he cleans house 03/31/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 1, 2010 12:34am]
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