Tampa Bay Lightning
Tocchet's role as Bolts' leader put to the test
TAMPA - Even though Rick Tocchet spent most of last season behind the bench running the Lightning, the former four-time all-star essentially is a rookie coach trying to lead a once-proud franchise back to being a contender. The Lightning came out of the gate relatively quickly and appeared to be on the road to redemption, but Tampa Bay has hit a major speed bump in the past month heading into tonight's game against the Philadelphia Flyers, the opener of a five-game homestand. Since beating the New York Rangers 5-1 on Nov. 25 to improve to 10-6-7, good for a tie for seventh in the Eastern Conference standings, Tampa Bay has gone 3-8-2. That tailspin has been steadied temporarily by a two-game winning streak. Should the three-week trend not be reversed - and consecutive wins against St. Louis and the New York Islanders might be signs of a turnaround - it would lead some to wonder whether Tocchet is the right man behind the bench.General Manager Brian Lawton, however, threw his full support behind Tocchet and his staff, praising the time and effort they have put toward game preparation every day. "So far I think he's done a good job," Lawton said. "He's just got to stick with it and keep pounding home what he believes in. He has to continue to raise the energy level around the players, raise the anxiousness. When you get into stretches like that, the coach is a leader and it's incumbent upon him to be that person to help drive things forward." Lawton said Tocchet also has complete control of all personnel decisions in dealing with the roster on a day-to-day basis, including when Alex Tanguay was scratched last week for a game in Nashville. "The coach has to be able to make those decisions and he has free reign to make those decisions with the players," Lawton said. "That's one of the bullets a coach has to have in his arsenal, the ability to make the calls on how much someone plays and who plays." This season has been a feeling-out process for Tocchet, who has been learning on the fly. Of the three members of his coaching staff, Adam Oates is in his first year and Wes Walz is in his second, just two years removed from playing. Longtime Dallas Stars associate coach Rick Wilson is the only staff member with prior head coaching experience - two years at the junior level and as a midseason replacement in Dallas in 2001-02. Handling the dip in the season has not been an easy task for the 45-year-old Tocchet. Last season, he came into a near-impossible situation, taking over for Barry Melrose 16 games in and trying to right a team that went on to finish with the fewest wins in the league. This season started better until scoring woes and untimely mistakes began to take their toll while sending Tocchet into some sleepless nights as he scrambled to try to find the right answers. "It's tough because sometimes as a coach you are looking to try different things or ideas on how you want to skin a cat," Tocchet said. "One thing is you have to believe you are doing the proper things system-wise, practice-wise and you can't question what you are doing because you are losing." Along the way, Tocchet said he has started to get a better feel for how to handle situations and players. "During the losing streak, there were times where in between periods you have to be able to find that fine line on knowing when to give it to your team and when not to give it to them," he said. "I actually think during this losing streak I'm starting to find that balance a little bit better."
Reporter Erik Erlendsson can be reached at (813) 259-7835.