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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 9:33am]

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