Tampa Bay Lightning: Embarrassing Play Down Stretch an Indictment of Head Coach

JC De La TorreAnalyst IIIApril 7, 2010

BOSTON - DECEMBER 02: Head coach Rick Tocchet of the Tampa Bay Lightning disagrees with a call in his game against the Boston Bruins at the TD Garden on December 2, 2009 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

My target for the Tampa Bay Lightning's post-Olympic collapse has always been general manager Brian Lawton. During the break, Lawton shook up the Lightning chemistry by firing a well-liked assistant coach, then abandoning his hockey team at the deadline by not making any moves to strengthen a young, struggling defense.

While Lawton definitely remains in the cross hairs of my angst, he's now got some company.

Until now, I always viewed Lightning head coach Rick Tocchet as a victim in all of this. He had to deal with a dysfunctional, idiotic ownership group (exhibit A: according to an article in the New York Post ,  former owner Len Barrie nearly dealt Steven Stamkos to the Rangers during his rookie season).

He was at odds with his GM all season for generating trade rumors regarding his best players. His assistant was fired without his knowledge or consultation, and insiders say Tocchet believed replacement Jim Johnson to be "a spy for the GM." The GM then stabs him in the back by not following through with promises to get help for the blue line.

It's a sad set of circumstances to be sure, but when you look a little deeper, you have to wonder if Tocchet should be allowed a pass for the team's performance down the stretch.

Tocchet's tried a number of different techniques to get the Bolts out this funk. He's punished them with extensive workouts. He's covered for them. He's called them out (as a team) in the press. They've run drills and extensive video sessions—you name it, they've tried it.

Yet nights like last night's 8-5 debacle against the Carolina Hurricanes says all you need to know.

This hockey team no longer has respect for Rick Tocchet. If they did, they wouldn't have quit on him.

Say what you will about Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris, but the one thing his team never did was stop believing in his message. They continued to play hard even when the team was hopelessly out of the playoff chase—they played for him.

The Lightning players?

I think they've stated their feelings on Coach Tocchet with their play.

It really is a shame because I don't believe Tocchet's a bad coach. To the contrary, I think he may turn out to be a darn good one in this league. I don't know if he's a John Tortorella or Scotty Bowman, but he certainly had the understanding of the game and its players to make a credible addition to the coaching fraternity.

I think Tocchet may have lost this team when he relegated new assistant coach Jim Johnson to the video booth like a common intern. Whether the guy is a spy or not, he didn't fire Wes Walz. It wasn't his knife that was in Tocchet's back. He came to help this hockey team out, not tear it asunder.

Johnson was 13-2-2 as interim head coach of the Admirals, where he turned around the hockey team. Had Tocchet given him a chance, perhaps he could have provided something of value.

Instead, he was exiled as Lawton's puppet until Lawton returned him to Norfolk on April 4.

Tocchet's paranoia of "what is that S.O.B. Lawton up to?" was a signal to the players that he wasn't focused on the second half of the season. The players are usually an extension of their coach and 5-12-1 since the Olympic break has been the result.

"It's pretty embarrassing, to be honest with you," superstar forward Steven Stamkos told the Tampa Tribune . "There should always be motivation, and if there isn't, then why are you playing? There are 82 games in a season for a reason and once you are out of the playoffs, you don't just forfeit. You've got to play and you've got to play hard."

Tocchet points to the talent quality of the defensemen.

"There's pride," Tocchet told the St. Pete Times , "But there's also, if you can't skate forward without losing the puck or missing a man constantly, you might not be in the league next year. It has gotten to that point with certain guys."

We know the Lightning have been struggling behind the blue line and that's on Lawton. Still, the Lightning have had the same defense for 79 games. This situation isn't any different than what is was when this hockey team was 26-21-11 and sitting in the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference.

The only difference is that Tocchet focused on off-the-ice politics rather than on-the-ice production and that cost him.

"There should always be some sort of motivation, whether it's for yourself, your teammates or the fans," Stamkos said.

Notice he didn't say "coach."

The players may love Tocchet the same way the Buc players love Morris. Still, the contrast of effort is pretty clear and in a way, their vote has been cast because of it.

All while new owner Jeff Vinik watches closely.


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