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New Tampa Bay Lightning assistant coach Jim Johnson tries to fit in

BRANDON — Lightning coach Rick Tocchet reiterated Thursday that he believes firing assistant coach Wes Walz was wrong and he said so to general manager Brian Lawton.

"No, I don't agree with it," Tocchet said. "Brian knows that. I told him. Wes Walz is a good friend and a really good coach. He's not the fall guy."

In other words, feelings still were raw the day after Walz was let go for declining to swap jobs with Norfolk coach Jim Johnson and Tocchet said he was not consulted on the moves.

Not the most comfortable situation for Johnson, who for the second straight day since coming to the Lightning from the team's AHL affiliate broke down video in a small Ice Sports Forum office while Tampa Bay practiced.

That after a 30-minute meeting with Tocchet, the first step to integrating Johnson into what he knows is a very tight staff that includes associate coach Rick Wilson, assistant Adam Oates and goalies coach Cap Raeder.

But if Johnson felt a chill, he didn't show it, and he seemed determined to make the most of his position.

"At some point, I'll get out there," he said. "But right now, it's good to immerse in this team and for me to understand the tendencies with a lot of players here; to understand if there are any areas I see where we can make improvements and help the staff. If we do that, it's better for everybody."

Johnson, 47, has had an impressive season.

Elevated from associate coach after Darren Rumble was fired, Johnson led Norfolk to a 13-2-2 record. He also ran the penalty kill, which is third in the AHL at 86.9 percent.

That last stat was most important to Lawton, who said Tampa Bay's playoff hopes could be enhanced by improving a penalty kill that is 22nd in the NHL at 80.5 percent; a penalty kill largely coached by Walz.

While Johnson said, "I think there are some things we can do a little different," he was careful not to step on toes.

"I'm just going to share ideas," he said. "It will be Rick's decision as to what he wants to do. I'm here working for Rick Tocchet. I'm going to listen to what Rick wants me to do and do whatever he asks."

What Tocchet will do with Johnson as the team — one point out of a playoff spot with 21 games left — prepares to resume its season Tuesday is to be seen.

"I'm not sure how I'm going to use him," Tocchet said. "It'll take chemistry. We formed really good chemistry here. I have to figure a way to make the staff move on and the team move on. We'll figure some things out. But … my focus right now is on the 23 guys in the locker room. They deserve my full attention."

Players seemed to take it all in stride.

"This group has gone through quite a bit of changes, so it's not anything new for us," goaltender Mike Smith said. "You don't like to see (Walz) put in that position, but at the same time, we have to worry about what goes on here. We're confident with the coaching staff we have."

Center Steven Stamkos, who last season got so much out of working with Walz, admitted, "There's going to be a little bit of an adjustment period."

Still, he added, "We have faith with what the coaching staff was doing for us. Just go out there and stick to the game plan. It's on our shoulders to play and win games and get into the playoffs."

Johnson, who played 829 games on defense for five NHL teams, is confident he can help.

"I'm a details guy," he said. "Details and accountability are the two big things we changed (in Norfolk). I'm a communicator. I like to think I articulate things well to the players so they understand what's expected. I hope I do that for Rick and his staff. That is what I'm here for."

Around the league: Blues wing Cam Janssen was suspended five games for a hit to the head of the Capitals' Matt Bradley on Feb. 13. Bradley left the game but is expected to play when the season resumes. … Flames wing Rene Bourque, 28, signed a $20 million, six-year extension. He has a career high 41 points, including 18 goals. … Wild wing Cal Clutterbuck, 22, signed a three-year extension. Last season, he set a league record with 356 hits and this season has a career-high six goals.

Information from Times wires was used in this report. Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

New Tampa Bay Lightning assistant coach Jim Johnson tries to fit in 02/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 25, 2010 11:01pm]
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