Lightning fire GM Lawton, coach Tocchet

April 13th, 2010 by — Tampa Bay Lightning management wasted little time addressing a third consecutive losing season, firing general manager Brian Lawton and head coach Rick Tocchet on Monday.

The Lightning finished the regular season with three straight wins, highlighted by Steve Stamkos’s 51st goal of the season in Sunday’s 3-1 victory over the hometown Florida Panthers, but a 34-36-12 record placed them 25th in the 30-team NHL.

“Our hockey operations department needs a fresh start in order to help us fulfil our goal of being a world-class organization,” stated Lightning chairman Jeff Vinik.

“Although we all are disappointed in the way our 2009-10 season finished, I am very excited about our future.”

Tampa Bay has missed the playoffs three years in a row and hasn’t advanced past the first round of the post-season since winning the 2004 Stanley Cup championship.

“Where we’ve finished the last two or three years is depressing,” forward Martin St. Louis said. No one had foreseen how quickly Vinik would fire Tocchet and Lawton, he said, but players sensed change was inevitable.

“Stability is always nice. I think it gives you a chance to grow. But obviously, the results we’ve had the last three years, there’s changes going to be made,” St. Louis said. “It’s part of the business. You’re judged on results. I feel bad for Toc. I wish we could have gotten better results for him.”

Vinik declined to identify whom the Lightning might be targeting as replacements. The Boston financier also wouldn’t speculate on whether the team’s highest-paid player, captain Vincent Lecavalier, will be with Tampa Bay next season.

Lecavalier wants to stay

Lecavalier, who has a no-trade clause in his contract, said he’d like to return and help the club get back to the playoffs.

“We were in a great position to make it, and we didn’t,” Lecavalier said. “Nothing you can do now. It’s over. You start fresh next year. That’s what we’ll do.”

The search for a new GM will begin immediately, Vinik said, and assistant GM Tom Kurvers assumes the lead hockey operations role until Lawton’s successor is hired. The new GM will then select a coach.

Vinik, who purchased the team from a group that owned the Lightning less than two years, said he’s seeking stability after watching the club climb into playoff contention in early February, only to fade rapidly after the Olympic break.

“I saw a lot of talent on the ice. I saw the makings of a great team. I saw an organization that can achieve a lot of great things in the years ahead,” Vinik said. “The moves I’ve done today, hopefully are to help us move as quickly as possible in that direction.”

The Lightning improved significantly under Tocchet, jumping from 19 wins in the 2008-09 campaign to 34 this season.

Tocchet, who took over from fired bench boss Barry Melrose on an interim basis just 16 games into the 2008-09 season, had that tag lifted last May 11.

He leaves Tampa Bay with one season remaining on a two-year contract.

Stamkos shares Richard Trophy

The former NHL forward was given much credit for Stamkos’s breakout season. The second-year centre amassed a team-leading 95 points in 82 games and shared the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal-scorer with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby.

The 20-year-old posted 46 points in 79 outings in his rookie season.

“It’s a pretty special time for me individually. Obviously, you’d much rather be in the playoffs. But it’s nice to get the 50th goal, and it’s icing on the cake to win the Richard,” the 20-year-old Stamkos said.

“To be tied with Crosby is pretty special. I never would have dreamt this day would come so early in my career. At the same time, all the hard work is paying off.”

Stamkos is the third-youngest player to reach 50 goals in a season. Only Wayne Gretzky (19 years, two months) and Jimmy Carson (19 years, eight months) were younger when they had 50-goal seasons.

Lawton joined the Lightning in June 2008 and was named GM on Oct. 22 of that year. The Tocchet-Lawton relationship was thought to be strained due to the latter’s dismissal of assistant Wes Walz in the middle part of the season.

Many of Lawton’s personnel decisions and free-agent signings backfired. He and Tocchet bickered at times, and the GM’s two-year contract was due to expire in June.

“Our search for a chief executive officer is well underway and we are in the process of interviewing candidates,” Vinik said. “After the new CEO is hired, he will hire our new general manager in time to prepare for the draft [June 25-26 in Los Angeles] and free agency [starting July 1].”

Vinik, minority owner of the Boston Red Sox, took ownership of the Lightning on March 3. He reportedly paid about $110 million US in cash, substantially less than the $206 million a group led by Oren Koules and Len Barrie had paid for the franchise in June 2008.

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