Vincent Lecavalier and the Tampa Bay Lightning sit 14th in the East and are in danger of finishing last in the conference. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
I really wanted to be praising the Tampa Bay Lightning this time of year. Shame they’ve left me no choice but to bury them.
The Florida Panthers are a franchise I expect to be underwhelmed by each and every season – and they never let me down come springtime. But the Bolts? A team that has Martin St-Louis, Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier and Victor Hedman on the payroll?
Yup, the Bolts are that lousy. Other than a modest four-game win streak in early February and three consecutive victories in late January, Tampa Bay has not won more than two straight games at all this year.
They’ve been far more adept at amassing losses in great numbers: they won just three times in 16 games from Nov. 19 through Dec. 17 and were defeated in 12 of 14 contests from Feb. 11 through March 21.
Team statistics are no kinder to Tampa. They have the fifth-worst goal production in the NHL, the fifth-worst goals-against average and the second-worst 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio.
The Lightning’s lot in the league is even worse when you consider the role goalie Antero Niittymaki – signed last July as an afterthought backup to incumbent No. 1 Mike Smith – has played in keeping Tampa from rivaling Edmonton for consistent futility.
(The fact Niittymaki has a save percentage above .900 (.911, to be exact) and a GAA under 3.00 (2.78) this year must make the foundering Philadelphia Flyers twitch with regret they cut him loose.)
How can this Bolts squad be so much less than the sum of its parts? How is it possible they still could finish the season dead last in the wishy-washy Eastern Conference and be in prime position to draft Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin in June?
More than likely, it has more than a little to do with a management/ownership structure that makes the Hatfield and McCoy clans look like Oprah Winfrey and her best friend Gayle Whatsherface.
Some of the blame for that has to fall at the feet of former Lightning owners Len Barrie and Oren Koules, who began their reign as good buddies and ended it communicating to each other exclusively through their attorneys.
However, the current management team of GM Brian Lawton and coach Rick Tocchet has disintegrated with spectacular results and deserves equal anti-kudos for their performance.
The public infighting began when Lawton unceremoniously turfed well-liked assistant coach Wes Walz Feb. 24 and replaced him with Jim Johnson, the organization’s coach of its American League affiliate in Norfolk.
Faster than you can say, “I’m not particularly pleased seeing one of my friends fired and having him replaced with the GM’s spy in the coach’s office,” Tocchet ostracized the crap out of Johnson, refusing to consult with him or allow him to skate with the team in practice until Lawton gave up and re-assigned Johnson to his old job in Norfolk over the weekend.
Since Walz’s termination, the Lightning have posted a brutal 5-11-1 mark. They had an outside shot at a playoff berth after the Olympic break, but clearly this is a broken group that is begging for the Old Yeller treatment.
And if new owner Jeffrey Vinik doesn’t go into the fall having completely cleaned out the old management regime, this mangy dog of a team isn’t going to hunt next year either.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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