Make us your home page

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

From the lowly depths of the NHL, hints of an upturn for Tampa Bay Lightning

TAMPA — The season is new. The doubts are old.

You are still skeptical, aren't you? Your arms are still folded, and your eyebrows are still raised. That's fair. The memories are fresh, and the dysfunction has been so immense, it's hard to blame anyone for holding back their passion.

After all, you have seen the chaos up close.

Why wouldn't you want to be sure it's safe before you watch again.

Even now, even as it skates into a new season, the Tampa Bay Lightning has something to prove. For two seasons it has lost games, it has lost fans, and it has lost its direction. The play has been bad, and the plan has been worse.

On the eve of opening night, the first question you ask has to be this: What reason is there to believe this season will be any better than the two that came before it?

"It's a fair question,'' said Brian Lawton, the man who has to answer it. "I like our team. I like our coaches. I like the work ethic. I think we've made good additions.

"But let's not get ahead of ourselves. We have a lot of hope, but until the players get out there and prove it, that's all it is. We need to prove we have a better team, and that starts on Saturday.''

Thursday morning, the general manager sat in the back row of Section 103 at the St. Pete Times Forum, close enough to see the players and close enough to hear if furniture was breaking in the owners' office. Because of an edict from commissioner Gary Bettman, Lawton is in charge now. He is the man to blame, the man who calls the shots and picks the players and plots the direction.

Frankly, he is also the first hint that this Lightning team has a chance to be better.

You remember last season, don't you? A player — or a coach — might be a fine idea one day, and a few days later he would be the worst idea ever. If nothing else, the Lightning led the league in instability. At any minute, you expected the ice to catch on fire.

There was a moment last season, about halfway through, when Lawton was in an elevator, annoyed over the latest disappointment. Another rider said: "Your team isn't doing too well." And Lawton snapped back: "It isn't my team.''

Now it is. Shortly after owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie started throwing other people's credit cards at each other, Bettman proclaimed that Lawton would be the point man when it comes to transactions for the franchise. Finally, someone — emphasis on "one'' — is in charge. Finally, the franchise is not being run by the latest whim or the loudest voice, not by Willy and not by Nilly, not by this cowboy or that one.

For the record, Lawton thought last season was as ugly as you did. What's the saying? You can't correct a problem until you realize you have one. Say this for the Lightning. It at least doesn't try to spin the past two seasons away.

"When you finish 30th one year and 29th the next, there is no hiding from it,'' Lawton said. "We started trying to win back our fans in March and April. Things were terrible. It was a disaster. We knew people didn't trust the organization. We talked about it as an organization. We weren't going to hide from this.''

Maybe that's why this team seems more grounded, more patient. Last year the Lightning spent its offseason signing scorers as if it were in a fantasy league. This year it seemed to carefully address problems by signing wing Alex Tanguay and defenseman Mattias Ohlund and drafting defenseman Victor Hedman.

Will it work? Only the scoreboard can answer that. But the defense should be better. The roster should be deeper. The goaltending should be more dependable. As far as building a team goes, the chances should be greater.

"My expectations are that this team is competing for a playoff spot after 60 games,'' Lawton said. "I would love to say we're going to do this and that. But we know we have a long way to go. When you finish 30th and 29th, you better find a mirror and look into it.

"It was like we've had an intervention. 'We're the Tampa Bay Lightning, and we've got a problem.' But we've taken the steps we had to take.''

Around the country, people are slow to believe. One oddsmaker has the Lightning at 33-1 to win the Eastern Conference, which makes it 13th of the 15 teams. Only Atlanta and the Islanders have longer odds.

"I don't blame anyone for their skepticism,'' Lawton said. "It's going to take 25, 35 games to change perception.''

Still, there are different ways of measuring success. If this Lightning team can stick to its plan, if it can be less reactionary, if it can indeed compete for the playoffs, this will be a better season.

If it can convince its fans that it is a hockey franchise once again, and not a comedy skit on skates, it will be a success.

From the lowly depths of the NHL, hints of an upturn for Tampa Bay Lightning 10/01/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 2, 2009 8:33am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Kids still playing for all the marbles — literally

    Human Interest

    In this world of pompous athletes, overbearing coaches, money-grubbing owners and a win-at-all-costs mindset, it's easy to become jaded.

    Eli Murphy, right, leans in to give Sierra Ricci the traditional king and queen kiss at the National Marbles Championship in Wildwood, N.J. Both of Allegheny County Pa., they won the girls and boys championship of the 94th annual National Marbles Tournament. [Associated Press]
  2. Lightning takes defenseman Cal Foote with top pick in draft

    Lightning Strikes

    CHICAGO — Former Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote said his son Cal lived in the locker room.

    Cal Foote, second from left, is welcomed to the Lightning by GM Steve Yzerman, far left.
  3. It's Rays' turn to pound Orioles pitching (w/video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG - Ah, the fantastic four.

    The Rays smashed the reeling Orioles 15-5 on Friday, scoring a season-high in runs, to climb four games above .500 for the first time since July 1, 2015.

    Rays third baseman Evan Longoria scores on a triple by Logan Morrison during the first inning against the Orioles.
  4. Lightning journal: Plans set for 25th anniversary season

    Lightning Strikes

    CHICAGO — The Lightning revealed some of its plans for its 25th anniversary season Friday, including a ceremony to honor the 2004 Stanley Cup team.

    fit test: Top draft pick Cal Foote puts on his Lightning jersey.
  5. Rays designate catcher Derek Norris for assignment

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — C Derek Norris tied a career-high with three hits in Friday's 15-5 win against the Orioles then was designated for assignment after the game to make room on the 25-man roster for C Wilson Ramos.

    Derek Norris, right, celebrates with Logan Morrison as he scores in what could be his last game with the Rays.