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Tampa Bay Lightning finally has a rebuilding plan

TAMPA — On a night such as this, you see the possibilities.

You see a puck on the end of Steven Stamkos' stick and you almost forget the difficulties of October. You see Vinny Lecavalier working a little of his magic and you almost remember the glories of 2004.

You see Tampa Bay beat Toronto 6-4 and you begin to believe the worst is finally in the past and the future is closer than you ever imagined.

For the first time in a long while, the Lightning has direction. Not like last season, when confusion was everywhere. And not like the first few months of this season, when confusion was upgraded to chaos.

The Lightning has gone 12-9-2 since Dec. 23. Maybe that doesn't translate into Stanley Cup fever, but it's the franchise's best 23-game stretch since the end of 2006-07.

After all this time, a plan is in place. An honest evaluation of assets and liabilities has been made. And the remaking of the Lightning brand is under way.

Best of all, someone is in charge. There is no tug-of-war between outgoing and incoming owners. There is no rift between coach and general manager. There is no doubt Brian Lawton is running the show.

Owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie remain involved, but Lawton's influence seems to have grown from the time he decided to fire coach Barry Melrose in mid November.

"There's never been a formal notification. It's just evolved as we've navigated our way through this year," said Lawton. "Ultimately, you have to have somebody who is accountable. You don't want to have blurred lines on that. I'm accountable to the ownership group for it. If we don't show progress in this organization — and I know we will — but if we don't, then I'm the guy who is on the firing line."

Tampa Bay still has many of the problems that doomed past seasons. Scoring distribution is still too lopsided. Another top forward has to be found. And Stamkos has to keep growing.

As for the defense, it is tempting to say that it must be rebuilt. Except how do you rebuild something that never existed? The Lightning needs two top defensemen, and maybe more. And finding someone to replace Dan Boyle's ability to move the puck could take years.

But we've learned Mike Smith has the potential to be an elite goaltender. You should also feel pretty confident that Lecavalier is not going anywhere in a trade and Marty St. Louis is not slowing. Those are some fairly sizable blocks to build around.

"We've worked very hard internally to plan out how we're going to get to where we're trying to go, and that's back in the playoffs consistently," Lawton said. "We've set the plans in motion as to how we fill those slots, how we rebuild our defense, because basically that's my No. 1 concern."

Feel free to be skeptical. You've earned that right through a handful of disappointing seasons. And as well as things have gone for two months, the new regime still has proving to do.

Let's face it, it has made mistakes. Many, many mistakes. How else do you explain a franchise sending paychecks to two general managers and three coaches? A franchise that had to pay Marc Denis to go away and might eventually pay Radim Vrbata to stay away?

The new ownership's greatest sin was exuberance. And maybe a little hubris. Too many decisions were based on the false premise that the team was inches from contention when the gap was closer to miles.

But after that initial burst of energy and optimism, the owners have taken a lower profile. The responsibility for personnel decisions seems to have shifted in Lawton's direction.

That's good. It's nice to have active ownership, but history tells us franchises are better off with owners who spend more time cheering and less time meddling.

"It's been pretty lean around here the last few years, and the ownership group wanted people to know they were committed to putting a winning team on the ice," Lawton said. "The difficult thing for ownership has been the realization that you're not going to snap your fingers and you're not going to buy a few free agents and just pop out of this.

"You're not going to pop out of not drafting well for five years. You're not going to pop out of having no depth in your organization because you spent some money on free agents."

Tampa Bay might never recoup some of the money spent foolishly on free agents last summer, but it's not like the salary cap is in a stranglehold. Many acquisitions were one-year deals, and the Lightning has a dozen or so players due to be free agents. For a first-place team, that would be a nightmare. For a team out of playoff contention, that means flexibility to reshape the roster.

"We have a lot of work left. Everybody knows that," Lawton said. "We have a lot to do this summer, but we have — what my favorite word is — options."

Tampa Bay Lightning finally has a rebuilding plan 02/12/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 13, 2009 7:45am]
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