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The NHL Big Top in Tampa Bay

The Tampa Bay Lightning circus has not left town yet. Strange doings are taking place under the St. Pete Times Forum Big Top.

Today started off with rumors swirling that head coach Rick Tocchet was going to be replaced. As the day went on, we learned that this wasn’t the case…for now.

The Lightning announced that Norfolk coach Jim Johnson had been promoted to assistant coach with the Bolts and that assistant Wes Walz was offered the AHL Admirals head coaching job. Coach Rick Tocchet came out and said that he had no idea that this was happening and that he was told about the change on Tuesday at noon. Walz mulled over the Norfolk “opportunity” and turned it down, thus essentially being fired by the organization.

It’s difficult to understand why GM Brian Lawton would terminate one of Rick Tocchet’s assistants and replace him without consulting the Lightning coach…or is it?

It is pure speculation on my part but this may signal that Tocchet’s days in Tamps Bay are numbered. It is entirely possible that Lawton is grooming former NHL defenseman and Norfolk coach Johnson to replace Tocchet as the Bolt’s bench boss. The Lightning and new owner Jeffrey Vinik certainly does not want to fire Tocchet outright because that would leave them paying three coaches: Johnson, Tocchet and former coach Barry Melrose.

The way they handled the Walz situation smells of financial self preservation. They offered him the Norfolk head coaching job or else… and Walz walked away from the organization. Walz is ready for an NHL head coaching job and probably didn’t want to be part of a minor league affiliate that has had three coaches this year.

It will be interesting to see how Tocchet handles this situation. It certainly is sad for the young players on the Admirals’ roster. They have played well of late, going on a 13-2-2 run towards the playoffs and now have to wait to see who will be leading them again.

In other mundane news:  The Lightning resumed practice today in preparation of battling for the NHL playoffs.

What will happen next? Stay tuned…the Tampa Bay hockey circus is still in town.

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About the Author: WB Philp is a published hockey writer who has a built in disdain for Barry Melrose. He covered the Detroit sports teams for many years until he came to his senses and moved to the Sunshine State. He is a true puckhead on a mission from God (Gordie Howe) to make hockey relevant in the south. He lives in Hockey Bay USA and covers the Lightning full time. Did I mention he hates Barry Melrose?

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  1. TJ says:

    I’m thinking it’s a case of self preservation for Brian Lawton. Cutting his losses and trying to save his own a$$.  But if the changes were made without Tocchet’s knowledge, what does that say about the confidence (or lack of) for the Lightning head coach?  And I thought the “circus” had left town with Barrie and Koules…. I think Tocchet’s survival with the organization depends on how he handles this change.  He’ll either be gone quick or will linger until the end of the season, but I believe that he may be gone this summer since Jim Johnson has been added to the coaching staff.  Is the next coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning on staff now?  Who knows?

  2. WB Philp says:

    Thanks for the comment TJ.
    You may be right about the Lightning GM and the CYA philosophy but remember that Lawton’s contract is up and I don’t think he is making these moves without Vinik’s approval. He may not have a contract in hand yet, but there must be a verbal agreement. I believe Lawton has lost confidence in Tocchet and will replace him with Jim Johnson.
    I think we all believed that the “circus’ had left town with OK Hockey’s departure, but like Ringling Brothers…there are 25 more that come out of the clown car.