BRANDON — Rick Tocchet has been replaced as the Lightning head coach. He just doesn't know it yet.
His job has been taken by speculation. By insinuation. Most of all, by a general manager who just cut Tocchet's legs out from underneath him.
At least that's the impression I got this week. By dismissing one of Tocchet's assistant coaches and replacing him with a handpicked acquaintance of more than 20 years, Lightning general manager Brian Lawton has put Tocchet in a virtually unwinnable situation.
Let's say the Lightning stumbles in the final 21 games of the season. Let's say Tampa Bay fails to make the playoffs. Lawton already has made it clear that he thinks the team has underachieved this season, and that means the head coach is ultimately responsible, right?
Or, let's say the Lightning finally gets hot coming out of the Olympic break. Let's say Tampa Bay finally makes it back to the playoffs. Don't you think new assistant Jim Johnson will be seen as the guy who rode in on a white Zamboni to save the day?
"Rick should not have any of those thoughts. We've never had any of those discussions," Lawton said Thursday when asked if it would be natural for Tocchet to be looking over his shoulder this morning. "You know, this is a big test for him. How he handles it, how he integrates it into the group. That's part of the challenge of coaching."
Except the GM is not supposed to add to a head coach's challenge. Not unnecessarily. Not this way.
Look, I'm not saying Lawton doesn't have a right to make difficult decisions. If he truly believes the Lightning should be better — even if the team has already surpassed last season's win total — then it's his job to hold the head coach accountable.
And, if that's the case, he should fire Tocchet. Because that would be better than emasculating him.
If you don't think the players in the locker room aren't speculating about Tocchet's future, then you're kidding yourself. They can see what's happening. They know Lawton put Johnson in charge of a struggling Norfolk affiliate a month ago, and they know Johnson completely turned that team around. So what are they to surmise from Johnson's quick ascension to Tampa Bay?
Granted, it could all be completely innocent. It could be, as Lawton says, simply a strategic maneuver to improve a weak penalty-kill unit. But perceptions matter, and the perception in this case is that Lawton has undercut Tocchet. He broke the normal chain of command by seizing some of the decision-making power that just about every other head coach in the NHL enjoys.
"We need to get the best people possible. The most competent. Call me crazy, but that's what I think," Lawton said. "If that makes people uncomfortable, that they don't want to work with other great people, then that's not a good fit for our organization long term."
In theory, Lawton's idea is correct.
In reality, his execution was awful.
Tocchet had no input in the decision to dismiss assistant coach Wes Walz. Lawton pointed out Thursday that he talked to Tocchet before actually firing Walz, but that's just semantics. The reality is the decision had already been made and Tocchet was given a cursory notification minutes before the trigger was pulled.
"I don't agree with it," Tocchet said. "Brian knows that. I told him."
Lawton said this was not a snap decision. He said it was not based on the three-game losing streak before the Olympic break when the Lightning played horribly against weak teams. Even before that, he said the team had been fortunate to win games and stay in the playoff hunt.
He said he ran the decision past outgoing owner Oren Koules and incoming owner Jeff Vinik, and both gave their blessing. And he said he took Tocchet out of the decision-making process because the head coach was close friends with Walz.
"I have friends, and I value my friends. But when it comes to evaluations and performance, I always have to set that aside. In some cases, like this one, I will remove some people from the process so they don't have to deal with that," Lawton said. "I like that our coaches are a close-knit group. I think that's a real strength. But I still have to evaluate them as a group and individually.
"That may not always sit well, but that's part of my job, and I cannot hide."
The decision comes at a time when everybody in the organization is hoping to make a good impression on Vinik. For Lawton, this is a chance to show he is decisive. It is also a way of saying his roster is better than its current record.
Maybe the Lightning will prove that by finally hitting its stride in the final 21 games. Maybe Johnson will be the missing ingredient, and Lawton will be able to tell critics that he knew what he was doing.
But if the Lightning falls short of the playoffs, then all bets are off.
And then it's going to be Vinik's turn to evaluate.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]