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Tampa Bay Lightning fires head coach Rick Tocchet and GM Brian Lawton

TAMPA — New Lightning owner Jeff Vinik decided the best way to start bringing stability to his struggling franchise was to shake it to its core.

So, on Monday, one day after the end of another dismal season, Vinik fired general manager Brian Lawton and coach Rick Tocchet.

"This isn't anything negative personally about Brian or Rick," Vinik said in a conference room at the St. Pete Times Forum. "This is no indictment of the job they've done."

Maybe not, but it is part of Vinik's mission to bring tranquility to a team that since Aug. 7, 2007, when Palace Sports & Entertainment made its first attempt to sell, has had three owners, three coaches, two general managers and two former owners (Oren Koules and Len Barrie) who believed they were general managers.

Add that the relationship between Koules and Barrie was toxic, and that Lawton and Tocchet were at odds, and Vinik has lots of detritus to clear.

"I want an organization in place where everybody has the same values, everybody has the same vision, all oars going in the same direction," he said. "It is extremely important to put an organization in place so players can focus, distraction free, on hockey."

"He wants to do things the right way," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "The guys are excited about that."

The process will continue as Vinik said he wants a CEO, general manager and coach in place by the June 25-26 draft in Los Angeles. Vinik said he will hire the CEO in 30 to 60 days. The CEO will hire a GM, who will hire a coach.

Vinik said the coach will decide on the futures of associate coach Rick Wilson, who has two years left on his contract; goaltenders coach Cap Raeder, who has one year left; and assistant Adam Oates, whose contract is up at the end of June.

Assistant general manager Tom Kurvers will run the hockey operations department until a GM is hired.

That Tocchet and Lawton lost their jobs was not a surprise.

After taking over in November 2008 for the fired Barry Melrose, Tocchet was 53-69-26. After climbing to sixth in the East on Feb. 9, the team went 8-15-1, and mostly looked bad doing it, to finish out of the playoffs for the third straight season.

Lawton last summer tried to patch some of the team's needs with risk-and-reward free agent signings. He had mixed results. He also did not do much at the trade deadline to bolster a hoped-for playoff run. And his decision to fire assistant coach Wes Walz and elevate AHL Norfolk coach Jim Johnson to replace him put Lawton and Tocchet, already upset he was not being consulted on player personnel issues, on opposite sides of a growing fence.

Considering all that, Tocchet, who had one year left on a two-year contract, said of Vinik's decision to clean house: "I don't blame him. I don't blame him at all. If I'm a new owner, from what I've heard and seen over two years, I'd want a fresh start, too.

"My only thing is I don't want to be linked to Brian Lawton. I got fired because of Rick Tocchet. You're dealt hands and do the best you can. You live and learn."

Lawton, who was hired in June 2008 but really began running the hockey operations department in June 2009 after commissioner Gary Bettman ordered previous owners Koules and Barrie to back off, wrote in a text message he was not bitter about being fired and that Vinik "is going to be a terrific owner in this league."

But he added, "Nine months is not a realistic time frame for any GM in a salary cap world. We made good progress in the time from when I could make all hockey ops decisions."

Ultimately, though, it came down to this for Vinik:

"I really think it's very important for this organization, on the hockey side, in order to achieve my vision of being world class, to have a fresh start."

He delivered that message to season-ticket holders in an e-mail and personally to the players before they cleaned out their lockers.

The timing was important, goaltender Mike Smith said:

"Now guys can go into the summer knowing what they have to do to be prepared for next season. You never like to see a guy lose his job because of how the team did. But we have a lot more potential in this room than we've shown the last couple of years. Everyone is just looking forward to a fresh start."

And a little stability.

"That's huge, and that starts from the top," Tocchet said. "That's the one thing you have to do is create a culture of what's acceptable and what's not.

"For Mr. Vinik, that is his vision, stability and creating a winning environment and getting the right players who want to be in that environment."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Lightning fires head coach Rick Tocchet and GM Brian Lawton 04/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 12, 2010 11:52pm]

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