Those were the first two qualities Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Brian Lawton pointed out when asked about the type of players he wanted to add this offseason as he continues reshaping the roster in an effort to return the team to a status among the NHL’s elite.
But as he stood on a small stage on the east plaza outside of the St. Pete Times Forum on Sunday afternoon, surrounded on all sides by hundreds of Lightning fans specially selected to take part in a Q&A session with he and Owner Oren Koules, Lawton may as well have been describing the characteristics the entire organization seeks to rely on going forward.
Lawton and Koules spent nearly an hour before Sunday’s game against Ottawa outlining their plans for the future and taking questions from fans, and the overriding theme that they stressed in many ways resembled the mindset that Lawton seeks to implement on the ice – aggressiveness paired with a high IQ.
While it might have taken a bit of bravery for Lawton and Koules to stand in front of their fans and field questions near the tail end of a frustrating season, Lawton told the crowd it was an important chance to connect with the organization’s supporters and create a two-way flow of information.
“It’s our pleasure to have you guys here and what we wanted to do was create a forum where you could hear what our plans are and how we’re going to get our team back to being the pride of Tampa, how it was in 2004,” Lawton said. “We also wanted to have a chance to hear from you guys as to how we’re doing and things we could do better and answer some of your questions. This is something that Oren and the rest of the staff thought long and hard about and are really pleased to present us here today.”
With Lightning play-by-play man Rick Peckham serving as emcee, the event kicked off with a special address from Interim Head Coach Rick Tocchet, who took a moment to speak to fans before resuming his preparations for the evening’s game.
“It’s been a tough year for us, just to be honest with you,” Tocchet said. “It’s been a lot of injuries and an unusual year, but the one thing I can tell you guys is next year, this team will be the most in-shape team in the league. We got off to a bad start and we’ve had a lot of patchwork done, but I can tell you in that dressing room we have a lot of young guys that had to play during this adversity and they’re going to be part of the future.
“I can honestly tell you we’re going to be ready to play next year and the detail will be exceptional. I think the guys are looking forward to it. I’d just like to thank you for your support. This is a great town. This is my first time living here and the people here are incredible. The hometown crowd here is exceptional, especially with the year we had. Thanks for the support.”
After Tocchet returned inside the arena, Lawton took the microphone and echoed many of Tocchet’s sentiments as he outlined the organization’s plan for the future. A focus on strengthening the team’s defense – whether through this summer’s strong crop of available draftees, free agent signings or trades – bolstering the group of forwards and continuing the development of the Lightning’s talented young goaltenders were the key points of Lawton’s strategy.
He also mentioned some off-the-ice changes the team is implementing, most notably a heavier concentration on scouting and even the team’s decision to lower ticket prices for next season.
In short, Lawton said he simply wanted to give the team’s supporters a glimpse of what they can expect – and hopefully foster a strong sense of enthusiasm – as the team wraps up the 2008-09 season and prepares for the future.
From top to bottom, the Lightning organization is confident that a solid foundation is already in place and that a handful of changes this offseason will have the team competing for the Stanley Cup title once again next season.
“When we look at our team, this isn’t a ‘rebuild,’” Lawton said. “The Tampa Bay Lightning are not going to be a bottom-dwelling team for the next three-to-five years. Our goal is to be back in the playoffs. There’s no doubt about it. That’s where we’re going to be. This process is going to be a ‘retooling,’ not a ‘rebuilding’ process. If we do our due diligence and do our hard work, I have no doubt that we will reach our goals.
“What we want you guys to know is that we’re committed to it. There isn’t a day that goes by where anybody on our staff has been satisfied with this season. I forgot how much it hurts when you lose. It hasn’t been a lot of fun. We understand that. It’s been tough, but when we show up and we see you guys coming here to show the interest that you have in this organization, in this franchise, that drives us forward. That’s what drives us to work harder day-in and day-out. We’re trying to create something that everyone can be proud of.”
Koules and Lawton then opened the discussion up to questions from the audience, and the topics varied – everything from the team’s plans to retain its superstars, the organization’s overall identity going forward and Tocchet’s future with the franchise to the team’s strategy on defense, plans for offseason moves and what the main drivers behind the turnaround project would be.
What we want you guys to know is that we’re committed to it. There isn’t a day that goes by where anybody on our staff has been satisfied with this season. - General Manager Brian Lawton
After answering every question with honesty, gratitude, and even a touch of humor, Lawton and Koules thanked everyone in the crowd for attending and listening to the organization’s blueprints for success, while also sharing their thoughts and feelings about the team.
Above all else, that two-way street of information was the main reason for putting on the event – creating a chance for the organization to lay out its plans for the future while also answering questions and taking in some firsthand opinions from its supporters.
And if Koules’ and Lawton’s face-to-face interactions on Sunday afternoon earned them any new fans – or even strengthened ties with their existing supporters – that was just icing on the cake.
“We’re really proud of what we’re trying to do here,” Koules said. “Come see what we’re doing. We’re so proud of what we’re building and what’s going to happen next year and the year after that we want you to take a chance on us. We want people to believe in us. We’re committed to making this work in any way we can with your support. It’s going to fuel what we do.”
For more information, or to be a part of future events like this, please call 813.301.6600.