TAMPA — After a season of losses in the standings, overhauls to the roster and staff and struggles at the turnstiles, the doings at the St. Pete Times Forum on Wednesday put a different face on the Lightning's future.
A fresher, rosier one.
Defenseman Victor Hedman and centers John Tavares and Matt Duchene, the consensus top three prospects for the draft, spent the day with Lightning brass as it tries to decide which one to take with the No. 2 pick on June 26. The Islanders own the top choice but have been coy about their preference.
"Having them down here gives us the chance to get to know them better as people, which ultimately is critical for this organization," general manager Brian Lawton said of the 18-year-olds. "We're looking for those extra character issues, those intangible traits. That's what separates the young men who go on and develop into All-Star players and Hall of Fame players."
He's sure all three have the skating, shooting and stick-handling ability to play immediately in the NHL.
Hedman, an imposing 6-foot-6, 220-pounder from Sweden, might fill the Lightning's need on the blue line. But the 6-foot, 195-pound Tavares and the 5-11, 200-pound Duchene, both from Ontario, are proven goal-scorers.
But can they handle the pressure of transitioning to the NHL?
"I'm just going to be happy to be part of an organization, be part of a future and hopefully build a winning tradition and be part of a team," Tavares said. "(The Lightning) obviously is in a rebuilding mode. The team's got some pretty good offensive depth and developing some defensemen and has a pretty good goaltender, too. So things are going to be turning around here pretty soon."
"That's a big challenge, and I'm really looking forward to that," Hedman said. "It's up to me to show them I'm good enough to play in the NHL. I see it as a challenge, and I have big expectations on myself, too. I hope not to disappoint the fans of the team I go to."
Not a chance of that on this day.
"It's an exciting time for our organization," Lawton said. "I think we will always have a group of prospects (in). I don't believe it will be as public as this because our selection is so high (this year). But in future years, if for instance we're drafting 10th or 20th, there'll probably be a small group of guys we bring in. I believe there's no shortcuts. There's no free lunch. You've got to do your due diligence. You've got to do the work or you're not going to find success."
Assistant coach search: Lawton said the Lightning is poised "to move forward" and look at candidates to take over for associate coach Mike Sullivan, who wanted to explore head-coaching opportunities. His contract expires June 30. "It'd been enough time, in my opinion, for Mike to have made a decision," Lawton said. "He wanted to still look at some different things, and I wished him good luck. If we don't find anybody we're happy with and he doesn't find another job he's happy with, then there's a possibility we could connect again. I'd say it's more remote at this stage." The search should heat up in the next week or 10 days.