Lightning are making waves in offseason, but will it spell success?
Tampa Bay is shaking; not only do the Rays have the best record in baseball but the Lightning have been the NHL's most proactive team. After signing Pittsburgh forwards Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts to seven-year and one-year deals, respectively, the Bolts went right after the negotiating rights to Wild forward Brian Rolston and got them for a conditional draft pick in 2009 or '10.
Rolston, who scored at least 30 goals in each of his three seasons with Minnesota, ultimately signed on with the New Jersey Devils, but there's no doubt that the Lightning's brand new ownership group, headed by Len Barrie and Oren Koules is making good on its vow to aggressively improve the team. The group made a splash by hiring former ESPN analyst Barry Melrose to coach the Bolts. A day later, former agent Brian Lawton was named vice president of hockey operations. That was just the beginning. Winger Vinny Prospal, who has had his most productive seasons in Tampa Bay, was reacquired in a trade with the Flyers, and on the opening day of free agency, netminder Olaf Kolzig and forward Radim Vrbata were signed.
The day Lawton was introduced, Tampa's director of player personnel Bill Barber resigned, and Phoenix executive Tom Kurvers could replace Claude Loiselle as assistant GM All of a sudden, Jay Feaster, the Lightning's GM for seven years, looks like the odd-man out at the St. Pete Times Forum. Observers are wondering just where he fits in. "It's kind of up to Jay," Koules told the Canadian Press last week. "He is still today our general manager. We did not hire Brian as GM, he's the vice-president of hockey operations to help us design and build a great hockey organization."
Even if they didn't hire Lawton to be GM, he seems to be behaving like one. Lawton was heavily involved in the Rolston deal. Bartlett says Lawton was the one who called him late on Sunday night to inform him of the trade between Minnesota and Tampa Bay. And it's easy to see Lawton's link to the acquisition of Malone: Lawton was Malone's agent before he left the business last year to pursue an NHL front-office job (Malone is still represented by Lawton's former partner, Mike Liut), and he negotiated Malone's last contract with the Penguins.
The moves don't end there. Malone's father, Greg, was brought in to be Tampa Bay's director of pro scouting. As head eastern pro scout in Phoenix last season, Greg Malone worked closely with Kurvers, who was the team's director of player personnel and oversaw the organization's scouting operations. Also coming from Phoenix will be Rick Tocchet, who along with former Minnesota Wild forward Wes Walz, will serve as Melrose's assistant. New owner Barrie convinced his close friend Walz, who retired last year, to join Melrose's staff, and Tocchet, who is also apparently close to one of the owners, briefly played under Melrose on the Los Angeles Kings during the 1994-95 season. "With these things, it's all based on relationships," says one league VP.
So far, it seems Tampa Bay's got plenty of connections; now what they need are results. The pieces are coming together now in Florida, but how they'll fit together remains to be seen this fall.