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Lawton discusses new owner and assistant coach

by Mike G. Morreale
BOCA RATON, Fla. – Having the opportunity to express concerns and, every so often, get a little "zany" at the annual General Manager meetings is something that appeals to the Tampa Bay Lightning's Brian Lawton.

Ideas will come and go, and whether you like them or not, Lawton appreciates the fact all 30 managers can sit in one room over a three-day stretch and discuss topics associated with improving the game.

Lawton was named executive vice president and general manager of the Lightning in October 2008, after serving as vice president of hockey operations for less than four months. He attended his first GM meetings last year and joined them for a second go-round at the Boca Raton Resort & Club this week.

Lawton took some time to speak with on several topics, including the hot item on this year's GM agenda -- hits to the head. He also provided his thoughts on new team owner Jeff Vinik and his thinking behind the hiring of new assistant coach Jim Johnson. How critical is it for the League to incorporate a rule putting an end to illegal hits?

Lawton: "It was critical that the group come up with the right answer. You're never going to appease everyone. Personally, I think the game is fantastic. There are so many things about it I like; there are very few things I don't like. But you never want to stop trying to get better and that's the one thing I enjoy about these meetings. Things get thrown out and something might be said right off the cuff. That's the purpose, to express yourself. Sometimes the ideas are zany, but it's something you have to do to get better. That's what I like about the way our League is run. There's a lot of input requested and decisions are ultimately made."
What about a point system that resembles that of the Olympics?
Lawton: "If you look around, there are different point systems for a lot of leagues around the world. Overall I think the way we do it is very good. I like that we added the shootout -- I think that's been a great addition to the game. I think we'll have to continue to evaluate it if things start to behave differently. The coaching is so good now and they're so intelligent that there's not much these guys can't figure out to work in their favor. So, as a manger, those are the things you watch out for and try to keep a balance to make sure everything fits." What are your impressions of new owner Jeff Vinik?

"It's been fantastic. Mr. Vinik has come in with a breath-of-fresh-air type attitude. (Former owner) Oren Koules is a great guy and gave everything he had to the Tampa Bay Lightning, no doubt about that. But there is a new-ness that I think will be really therapeutic for the organization having Mr. Vinik as the sole owner." There was a lot of talk over the way new assistant coach Jim Johnson was hired to replace Wes Walz. Can you clear the air?

Lawton: "There was a little bit of misinformation out there. Someone had said I didn't consult my head coach and that's absolutely false. I did speak to our coach (Rick Tocchet) about it. Unfortunately, you run into situations where you have friends and it's my job to make determinations that are in the best interest for the club and that's really what it did. I made a determination that I felt would make us better as a group and I believe wholeheartedly in that decision. The ramifications of these decisions are, you're not always going to please everyone, but that's part of the job and I understand that. This wasn't an overnight decision. A lot of thought went into this. A bit of the issue was I didn't get to talk in person with our head coach. To be frank, he wasn't available in the home city due to the (Olympic) break and schedule. He was on vacation. When he got back in town about 9:30 p.m. the night before we got back on the ice, I met with him and we had a nice discussion about it and that's the way I do business. You want to keep everyone informed of what you're doing as much as possible. Ultimately, and the way I do things, the buck stops with me. I take complete responsibility for that. I don't duck it or hide it from it."
Is your team in the position you expected them to be in at this stage in the season?

"This is where we thought we would be -- what we view from here on out is the 'X' factor. We thought that at the 60-game mark, we felt we could be competing for a playoff spot. When you're ranked 30th (in 2007-08) and 29th (2008-09) in the League, you have to walk before you run. So the key is patience. We just went through a trade deadline here, and for me, I'm not a guy who thinks he has to fix our team at the deadline. The way the world is shaping up with salary caps, free agency and things like that, you have to address your issues in the summer and that's what we did."

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