It was a bittersweet morning for Tampa Bay Lightning
forward Steven Stamkos
Less than 24 hours after becoming the second-youngest player in League history to lead the League in goals, the GM who showed faith in him and the coach who helped him reach that level were dismissed.
Still, Stamkos wasn't too shocked when he received word that owner Jeff Vinik had relieved coach Rick Tocchet
and General Manager Brian Lawton
of their duties Monday morning. Vinik, who took over as chairman of the team March 3, informed Lawton of his decision Saturday and Tocchet on Monday.
"It's not something that was a huge surprise," Stamkos told NHL Live! Monday. "Obviously, the success wasn't there the last couple of seasons and there was a lot of media attention surrounding what was going to happen. This is the first of a lot of moves that'll be made this summer and it's something you have to respect and just go out and do your thing."
That's exactly what Stamkos did on the way to registering the second-highest goal total in franchise history, behind Vincent Lecavalier
's 52 goals in 2006-07. Stamkos grabbed a share of the NHL goal-scoring title with Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby
on Sunday when he scored No. 51 into an empty net with 13 seconds remaining in a 3-1 victory against the Florida Panthers
on the last day of the regular season.
When he received word of the organization's direction, he was saddened but realizes it's a business decision.
"I can only speak for myself," Stamkos said. "I had a really good relationship with head coach Rick Tocchet
. Everyone knows the situation last season when he took over as head coach. He showed he cared about me as a player and wanted to help develop me into the player I am today and he worked extremely hard."
At one point last season, Tocchet made Stamkos a healthy scratch and directed him to take notes for a few games. Looking back, Stamkos feels it was a decision that paid huge dividends.
"Even though he sat me out the three games, at the end of the day it definitely helped me," he said. "Whether it was before or after practice, he was always working with me so it was tough (to see his release). At the end of the day, you have to respect Mr. Vinik and the ownership."
Stamkos reached the 50-goal mark Saturday with a pair of goals in a 4-3 shootout win against the Panthers. Stamkos, who turned 20 on Feb. 7, became the youngest player to lead the NHL in goals since Columbus' Rick Nash
(19 years, 10 months) joined Jarome Iginla
and Ilya Kovalchuk
in winning Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy in 2004.
The Lightning missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season, finishing 25th in the League with 34-36-12 mark and 80 points. It was their highest point total since 2006-07, when it won 44 games while racking up 93 points.
"I had a really good relationship with head coach Rick Tocchet. Everyone knows the situation last season when he took over as head coach. He showed he cared about me as a player and wanted to help develop me into the player I am today and he worked extremely hard."
-- Steven Stamkos
Lawton's two-year contract was set to expire in June, while Tocchet had one year remaining on a two-year deal.
"I wanted to allow Rick to do his job the rest of the season and I wanted to tell Brian pretty much as soon as I made up my mind about what's best to make this (team) world-class," Vinik told reporters during a briefing Monday morning.
In the interim, assistant GM Tom Kurvers
will serve as head of the hockey operations department until a new general manager is named.
"Our hockey operations department needs a fresh start in order to help us fulfill our goal of being a world-class organization," Vinik added. "Our search for a new (GM) begins (Monday). After the new CEO is hired, he will hire our new GM in time to prepare for the draft and free agency periods. It will be the responsibility of the new GM to hire the new head coach."
There already is plenty of speculation swirling throughout the hockey fraternity on who's in line to become the next GM of the Lightning.
A few names mentioned have been Doug Risebrough, the former Minnesota Wild
GM who has ties to Vinik; Steve Yzerman
, the current vice president of operations with the Detroit Red Wings
and executive GM of Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympics; Jim Nill, the assistant GM in Detroit; and Claude Loiselle
, a former Tampa Bay assistant GM.
First for Vinik, however, is the CEO position.
"My job right now is to try and find the best CEO and I expect to have that wrapped up over the next couple of months," said Vinik. "This is the first necessary step that needs to be taken to make this organization world-class."