June could be pivotal month for Brian Lawton, Tampa Bay Lightning

Last year, Brian Lawton was one of three, including the owners, making decisions.

Last year, Brian Lawton was one of three, including the owners, making decisions.

TAMPA — Brian Lawton characterized the work he will do this summer as business as usual.

No other choice, the Lightning general manager said, because if he thought about how trading Vinny Lecavalier, Tampa Bay's most popular and iconic player, would define his legacy, the implications might overwhelm the decision-making process.

"I wouldn't be able to function," Lawton said. "It would be debilitating. So I don't think of it consciously, and I don't think of it subconsciously. My focus is narrow. What are we going to do to improve this hockey club?"

Lawton stressed he is not shopping the four-time All-Star center but doesn't deny he'll listen if teams pick up the phone.

And why not? The Lightning finished 29th in the 30-team league this season and has a leaky defense and little secondary scoring. It has financial problems, is trying to control costs and has one player, Lecavalier, who next season will make $10 million.

But Tampa Bay also has the No. 2 pick in the June 26-27 draft. Free agency begins four days later. Put it all together and Lawton has a chance in the next 40 days or so to radically remake the team and do it from a position of greater strength.

Eleven months into his first GM job, Lawton has duties as head of hockey operations that are better defined as he and owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie hashed out territories and eliminated what Lawton called the "chaos" of "too many voices."

Of course, that means the pressure has increased, too.

"That's exactly the way I want it," he said from his St. Pete Times Forum office. "For the first time, it really is all on me."

Learning curve

What was it like working with owners Barrie called "owner-operators"?

"Last year I did not feel comfortable at all," Lawton said. "We had three people making decisions. Everybody knows that, and it leads to a discombobulated effort. As an organization, we sat down and straightened that out. Last year I was exuberant for the opportunity. Now I'm excited for the structure we have."

A structure in which Lawton, 43, of Cumberland, R.I., gained influence.

He is a sounding board on business matters for Koules, who handles much of the day-to-day running of the team and Times Forum. He also apparently is the tiebreaker on hockey matters if Koules and Barrie disagree.

"Those guys have told me I'm the final word," Lawton said. "That's what they've communicated to me. That doesn't mean I don't notify them or I don't keep them abreast of it. But at the end of the day, the way it's set up is, that's my call."

Koules acknowledged, "We've given Brian the authority to take the lead role in everything we do from a hockey operations standpoint."

But, he added, "That doesn't mean he won't make sure everyone is on board before any potential moves are made."

And Barrie reminded, "I won't give up the right to sign off on things, and I'm sure Oren would tell you the same."

Whatever the chain of command, Lawton is under "tremendous pressure to get things back on track," former Lightning general manager Jacques Demers said. "But Brian Lawton is a better GM than he was last year. He's more prepared. He understands the league."

And understands that it might take something radical to make the Lightning better short and long term — which brings us back to Lecavalier.

The Vinny dilemma

Is it better to rebuild with one of the game's most skilled players or what he brings in a trade? That is the question for Lawton as he listens to offers for Lecavalier.

As he does, former Lightning general manager Rick Dudley, who in 2001 almost dealt Lecavalier, said to keep this in mind:

"You don't have to win every trade. It can be good for the other team, too. You take a look at the other team and say, 'We can use what they can give up, and they can use what we can give up. Let's see if there's a match here.' "

If only it was that simple for Tampa Bay, which will have lots more to worry about than moving assets if it trades Lecavalier.

• How will fans react after being stung by the Dan Boyle trade?

• What about Lecavalier's assertion, and Lawton's belief, that the captain will return to top form after a down season?

• How does Lawton reconcile a potential move with Barrie, who calls Lecavalier "a generational player" and is strongly inclined to retain him?

• And what message would it send if the Lightning, after signing Lecavalier to an 11-year, $85 million contract, deals him before his no-move clause takes effect July 1?

"Vinny and I sat down, and I made some promises to him I absolutely will never break," Lawton said. "And that is nothing will ever happen without me telling him about it. If anything happened with Vinny Lecavalier, I will tell him long before anybody else. And I can assure you that as of this moment, I have not spoken to him about that."

As for selling a potential deal to ownership and fans, Lawton said, "If you can't explain what you're doing logically, then you're probably doing the wrong thing."

June could be pivotal month for Brian Lawton, Tampa Bay Lightning 05/29/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2009 6:50am]

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