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Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Brian Lawton shakes up coaching staff

BRANDON — A significant change to the Lightning's coaching staff raised serious questions about the relationship between coach Rick Tocchet and general manager Brian Lawton.

Tocchet said he was not consulted before AHL Norfolk coach Jim Johnson was promoted to Tampa Bay assistant and Lightning assistant Wes Walz was offered the Admirals job.

Walz, 39, who said he was "caught off guard," declined because he did not want to uproot his family. He was fired with another year left on his contract.

"None," a stern-faced Tocchet said Wednesday when asked if he had any input. "I was told at 12 o'clock (Tuesday)."

"I did discuss it with Rick," Lawton said. "When I go through a decision like this, I talk to the head coach. I talk to the rest of the staff, assistant GM. I talk to the players, quite frankly. That's the process I use whenever I make major decisions, or minor ones, for that matter."

But according to Tocchet's time line, that was after the decision was made. Asked if that was a problem, he said, "Right now, it's irrelevant. I have 23 guys to coach. … We had things going pretty good here."

Not good enough for Lawton, though the team, out of the postseason the past two years, is ninth in the East, one point behind the Canadiens for the final playoff spot.

Lawton said he knew something had to be done after the Lightning lost three straight entering the Olympic break, allowing five goals in each game to teams below it in the standings.

"Ultimately, this is my decision, and Rick should not be held accountable for it," Lawton said at the Ice Sports Forum on the first day teams could resume practice. "If it works very well and it does give us that eighth-finish difference, he should take all the credit. If it doesn't work well, then I'm the one who made the decisions."

With 21 games left, Lawton said elevating Johnson is part of a plan to reach the postseason that also might include acquisitions by Wednesday's trade deadline.

Johnson, 47, led Norfolk to a 13-2-2 mark after he was promoted from associate coach after Darren Rumble was fired. He also worked with the defense and the penalty kill, which is third in the AHL at 87.1 percent.

Tampa Bay's penalty kill, which was handled by Walz and associate coach Rick Wilson, is 22nd in the NHL at 80.5 percent.

"For me, I think it's a little bit of a fresh twist," Lawton said. "I was really happy with the job Jim was doing on the penalty killing down there. I think some of those points can really help us here. A little bit more experience implementing that from A to Z, and that will be an upgrade for us, for sure."

In other words, it is clear Lawton wants Johnson to work on the penalty kill.

Will it happen?

"I haven't had time to think about it," said Tocchet adding, "That's up to me. I'm the head coach."

Lawton said Tocchet's job is not in jeopardy: "This is not an indictment against anybody."

Maybe not, but it certainly raises questions when a coach says he was not asked about the makeup of his own staff. For Lawton, it seems the end justifies the means.

"Finishing ninth isn't good enough," he said. "Coming up just a little short isn't good enough. We have high expectations that run from past ownership to our eventual new ownership. That is crystal clear, and everyone should understand that."

Notes: Center Zenon Konopka has a "stiff back" after a training injury. He said he is unsure if he will play Tuesday. … Assistant Leigh Mendelson took over at Norfolk on an interim basis.

around the league: Predators Goalie Pekka Rinne signed a two-year, $6.8 million extension. Rinne, 27, who could have been an unrestricted free agent in June, is 20-12-4 while splitting time with Dan Ellis.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Brian Lawton shakes up coaching staff 02/24/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 24, 2010 10:36pm]

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