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Suggestions for Bolts: Yzerman, anyone?

4/12/2010

We have to give kudos to Jeff Vinik for wasting no time in cleaning house.

The Tampa Bay Lightning's new owner fired GM Brian Lawton and coach Rick Tocchet on Monday, less than 24 hours after the Lightning's disappointing season came to a close.

We would have given Tocchet another shot at the start of next season, but we understand why Vinik wanted a clean slate.

If there ever was a franchise that needed a fresh start, it's the Lightning, who have seen so much of the goodwill established after the team's 2004 Cup run go down the toilet because of a tawdry ownership battle and a series of baffling personnel decisions.

The team has missed the playoffs for three straight seasons and has yet to win a playoff round since winning the Cup; the fan base has taken its cues from the chaos and stayed away. To rebuild the relationship with that fan base, Vinik needs to rebuild from the top down, and he's started on that path.

We have heard rumblings that former Minnesota GM Doug Risebrough may have an inside line on the job as team president; regardless, if we were Vinik (and we rarely pretend we are except under extraordinary circumstances), we would do two things.

First, we would call Detroit owners Mike and Marian Ilitch and ask for permission to talk to Steve Yzerman. We would ask him -- no, beg him -- to make the trip to Tampa Bay and help build a winner there. Talk about instant credibility. Is there a franchise among the 30 that couldn't use a character guy like Yzerman?

But in Tampa, Vinik, the financial genius who bought the team earlier this season, will need to surround himself with people who have integrity and know the game inside and out. Yzerman, the man who put together Canada's gold-medal squad at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, fits the bill on both fronts. He is relatively inexperienced, but his work with the Olympic team spoke volumes about his hockey IQ and ability to stand behind his convictions.

Having said that, we doubt Yzerman would take the job. Tampa Bay is pretty far from home and family, it's not in Canada (hey, we took geography in school, too) and it may be too unstable a situation for Yzerman to want to throw his hat into the ring as he considers options for his first NHL GM job.

So, let's say for a minute Vinik calls Yzerman as we've suggested, but Stevie Y. politely declines. What then?

How about going to a familiar face for Plan B. How about giving Jay Feaster another shot.

Yes, we know Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can't go home again, but why not? Feaster not only helped build a Stanley Cup winner in Tampa Bay, but he also knows the market well. The savvy numbers guy helped sow the seeds of hockey in Tampa and has maintained residence there even after he was fired two years ago. Off the ice, he would know how to rebuild the bridges with the fan base in Tampa. (He helped build it to begin with.)

Beyond that, we have a pretty fair idea whom Feaster would tab as his coach. Old friend Bob Hartley has been idle since being fired by the Atlanta Thrashers early in the 2007-08 season but has kept his hand in the game as an analyst for RDS in Montreal. If there is one key to turning around this franchise, it is keeping Vincent Lecavalier in a Bolts sweater and making him whole again, making him feel he is part of the fabric of the team.

That hasn't been the case for the past two years. There is more than a passing notion that management was determined to drive Lecavalier out, to make him come to the team and ask to be traded even though he signed an 11-year, $85 million deal that includes a no-trade clause. Having similarly driven Dan Boyle out of town, it's not that big a stretch to suggest such a strategy was being employed with Lecavalier.

Feaster is the guy who once famously insisted he wouldn't go down in history as the guy who traded Lecavalier, and the team and city got a Stanley Cup as a result. If there is a coach who might be able to get Lecavalier back to where he was -- an elite player -- it's Hartley.

Hartley's r?sum? -- at least before arriving in Atlanta where his rosters were annually full of holes big enough to drive a Mack truck through them -- is chock full of winning, including four straight trips to the Western Conference finals and a Stanley Cup win in 2001 with Colorado.

There are a lot of moving parts in Tampa Bay, including Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis (who can become an unrestricted free agent after next season), Steve Downie, defenseman Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos, who tied for the Rocket Richard Trophy with 51 goals in just his second season.

In short, this team shouldn't be that far from being respectable again. Given the acrimonious relationship between Tocchet and Lawton, having a GM and coach who have worked together in the past (Feaster and Hartley were together in Hershey with the Avalanche farm at one point) wouldn't be a bad thing at all for the Bolts.

Just a thought.