The Tampa Bay Lightning are starting over yet again.
New owner Jeff Vinik cleaned house Monday, firing coach Rick Tocchet and general manager Brian Lawton after the struggling franchise missed the playoffs for the third straight season. It’s club’s third coaching change in two years.
The Lightning went 34-36-12 this season and are 53-69-26 since Tocchet replaced Barry Melrose in November 2008.
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Lawton’s dismissal was not a surprise, either. Many of his 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.
"On the hockey side of things, I thought it was very important to have a fresh start. Nothing negative about Rick Tocchet or Brian Lawton," said Vinik, whose purchase of the team was approved by the NHL Board of Governors in March.
Vinik is conducting a search for a chief executive officer and hopes to fill the position within two months. The CEO will select Lawton’s replacement, and the new GM will have the responsibility of hiring the 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 Februay, 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."
Tocchet became interim coach 16 games into the 2008-09 season and was given the head coach position in May 2009. Lawton assumed the general manager post on Oct. 22, 2008.
Since winning the 2004 Stanley Cup championship, Tampa Bay has not advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs.
"Where we’ve finished the last two or three years is depressing," forward Martin St. Louis said. He added that while no one could be certain Vinik would quickly fire Tocchet and Lawton, 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 who 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, 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 biggest bright spot of the season was the development of emerging star Steven Stamkos. The top pick in the 2008 NHL draft scored his 51st goal in Sunday night’s season finale at Florida and will share the Rocket Richard Trophy with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby.
"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 in paying off."