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Admirals, Lightning together in playoff race

by Amanda Harris / Tampa Bay Lightning

Norfolk currently ranks seven points out of second place in what is arguably one of the toughest divisions in the AHL.

It’s easy for the details to get lost amidst the hubbub of a grueling hockey season. Even more so when the focus inadvertently shifts from what’s happening on the ice to the headline-grabbing affairs occurring outside of the rink.

Coach Jim Johnson

Norfolk head coach Jim Johnson led his team to a 7-1-2 record in his first 10 games behind the bench.

For Norfolk Admirals bench boss Jim Johnson however, it’s precisely the details that are making the difference for his young team.

Heading into Wednesday, both Norfolk (25-24-4) and its parent NHL club, the Tampa Bay Lightning (26-21-11), are positioned to make a run for the post-season for the first time in the two-year history of their affiliation.

And while a combination of timely scoring and solid goaltending has helped to propel the Bolts into a seventh place tie in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, the recent success in Norfolk can be traced back to the beginning of Johnson’s reign as head coach.

With a stellar 7-1-2 record in his first 10 games behind the bench for the Admirals, it’s fair to say Johnson has exceeded expectations since replacing Darren Rumble just three short weeks ago.

It was January 16 to be exact, and just prior to the AHL All-Star break, when Lightning executive vice president and general manager Brian Lawton appointed Johnson, then the team’s associate coach, as Rumble’s replacement. Upon making the announcement, Lawton emphasized it was his hope such a change would galvanize a struggling Norfolk team and provide the impetus needed for the Admirals to make a push for the playoffs.

Lofty goals for the GM and a tall order for Johnson no doubt. Still, the change was a necessary one and something Lawton stands behind.

“Things are changing [in Norfolk] and we’re on the right track. Never in the history of the organization have we had both teams vying for a playoff berth,” he explained. “Jim has done a remarkable job in that he’s essentially taken a seventh place team in complete disarray to third in the East.”

Even more astounding than Norfolk’s jump in the standings however, is the fact Johnson was able to initiate its turnaround as the team was embarking on a seven-game road trip. Upon returning to Scope last week, the newly-minted playoff contenders had not only closed the book on their most successful road swing in seven years (6-0-1), but also joined Hershey (currently ranked first in the division) as the only other team in the East above .500 on the road this season (12-11-2).

What has made the difference in Johnson’s short reign at the helm? The creation and nurturing of a team identity, accountability from everyone in the room, the execution of a game plan geared towards improved offensive production, and, quite simply, candor.

“I think honesty is the backbone for the winning culture in any level of sport” Johnson said. “The only way you make progress is by having the courage to make an honest assessment of a given situation. This approach allows for an opportunity to find solutions to problems or challenges that present themselves.”

Another successful approach taken by the coach is one in which long-range goals are achieved through a series of smaller successes. In breaking things down into three-game blocks, Johnson is better able to effectively evaluate each player in a pressure situation. In turn, the players are provided a unique opportunity to track their growth and development given a wide range of unique game scenarios.

As Johnson explains, “It’s a great way of not focusing on how many points out of the playoffs we may or may not be or the amount of games remaining in the season. I enjoy seeing how the players rise to the occasion in each of the different series. It also prepares them for the real thing so when it starts they will be battle tested and ready to have great success.”

With a 13-year career in the NHL in his pocket, the former defenseman from New Hope, Minnesota, has himself been battle tested and is currently enjoying tremendous success. Though the team’s unbeaten-in-regulation streak ended at nine games last Saturday, Johnson finds himself in good company as only Guy Boucher of the Hamilton Bulldogs’ boasts a better record with no losses in eleven games (7-0-4). Upon taking a closer look in direct comparison through the nine games however, the Admirals coach (7-0-2, 16 points) bests his Hamilton counterpart (6-0-3, 15 points) with a .888 win percentage.

“Jim is a coach that was short on professional experience, but we believed strongly in his work ethic, methodology and approach to coaching. It is nice to see him having this amount of success so quickly,” asserted Lawton, who opportunistically plucked Johnson from a coaching stint in the realm of U.S. and amateur hockey last year.

Lawton’s appointing Johnson to the head coaching position couldn’t have come at a better time as it was less than twelve months ago the GM thanked a restless Norfolk fan base for its patience and promised a markedly improved product in 2009-10.

With roughly 28 games remaining and Norfolk sitting a mere seven points out of second place in what is arguably one of the toughest divisions in the AHL, the GM has more than made good on his word. And with the Lightning also poised to make a run at the post-season this year, Lawton is turning his long-term vision into reality.

“A strategic plan that inspires people to become better men is what leads to the type of competitive greatness that the winning teams achieve consistently,” says Johnson. “Ultimately it is this inspiration, embedded in each member of an organization that leads to the never ending improvement that will lead to playoff performance and success as a team and individually.”

That, and the details, of course.

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