Melrose says he's familiar with the "new" NHL

Wednesday, 06.25.2008 / 4:33 PM
Mike G. Morreale  - Staff Writer

Despite his 12-year sabbatical from coaching, Barry Melrose is convinced the game hasn’t passed him by — and he’s determined to prove it when he steps behind the bench of the Tampa Bay Lightning this fall.

In fact, Melrose feels the new NHL has actually reverted back to the old style that fans and players enjoyed most.

"The game has really gone back to the way it was when I left," said Melrose, who had worked as an analyst for ESPN since 1996 before being hired by the Lightning on Tuesday. "Speed is again very important, and individual skill has become huge in those one-on-one situations. The new rules have opened up the ice for the very fast, very skilled, and now our best players are able to score goals again. That has increased the interest in hockey and, really, that’s the way the game was in the early '90s before the trap and defensive systems came into play."

He does concede there's one area of coaching that has changed.

"I might be a little rusty on the bench,"’ he admitted. "The intensity and speed of the bench is a lot different today. One thing I will definitely do is coach all the exhibition games in order to become accustomed to working the bench again — but that's the only area where I might experience a bit of rust."

Luc Robitaille was just 21 when Melrose took the reigns as coach of the Kings during the 1992-93 season. It was then the hockey world learned of Melrose's uncanny ability to discover leadership.

"The 1992-93 season started out unusual,"’ Robitaille said. "Barry was a first-year head coach, and during the first week of training camp, Wayne Gretzky hurt his back. When we learned that he wasn't going to play until after Christmas, it was a real blow to myself and the entire organization."

It was then Melrose pulled Robitaille aside for a little heart-to-heart.

"We were getting ready to play a preseason game in Tacoma and Barry talked to me," Robitaille recalled. "He said, 'Wayne is going to be out for a long time, and we need a captain for the interim. Who do you think it should be?' I said, 'I don’t know,' and he told me that he was thinking of putting a young guy in that role and said that he'd been considering me. I was really honored, and it was a big challenge. We were missing the best player on our team and in the League, so it was something I took a lot of pride in."

He certainly did. Robitaille rewarded Melrose's faith by setting League records for most goals (63) and points (125) in a season by a left wing. While his record for goals was eclipsed this season when Washington’s Alex Ovechkin scored 65, Robitaille still holds the record for most points.

"Barry had a lot of communication with the players," Robitaille said. "He made sure we all felt like we were part of one big family — and he was with us. He was always very positive and played a huge role in our success that season. He certainly came in at the right time."

Gretzky, who spent three seasons as a player under Melrose in Los Angeles, is glad to see his former coach behind the bench again.

"He's good to and plays his top players so Vinny (Lecavalier) is going to love playing for him," Gretzky told The Tampa Tribune. "He treats his role players with a great deal of respect and treats those guys just as good as he treats his top players — and I think that’s a fine line and important because guys who don't play as much, whether it’s a sixth defenseman or a fourth-line guy, need to have that reassurance they are part of the team."

With regard to leadership, Melrose, who coached in Los Angeles from 1992 to 1995, feels the cream always rises to the top.

"You can hide a lot of things, but you can't hide leadership,"  Melrose said. "That's one area I'm going to be looking closely at in training camp; who are the leaders in our locker room, who can I depend on in tough situations and who's going to score that third-period goal and change the momentum of the game when our team is down by one. Finding that player will certainly make my job a lot easier.

"When I arrived in Los Angeles, the first thing I noticed was that Luc (Robitaille) was a great leader, even though nobody else thought of him in that role," Melrose added. "It took a young guy like that to push the others. I’m hoping that leadership comes through in Vinny (Lecavalier) this season."

Melrose will finally have the opportunity to meet No. 1 overall draft choice Steven Stamkos on Thursday when both coach and rookie will meet season ticket holders from 5-6:30 p.m. in Icons restaurant at the St. Pete Times Forum.

"Steve is flying down tomorrow for fan fest and we'll have a good time," Melrose said. "I've watched him on tape, but haven't seen him in person. I know a few coaches who have worked with him who have told me how gifted a player he is, and I’m really looking forward to meeting him and watching him progress."

Melrose is a firm believer that each player on a roster needs to be dealt with individually.

"I'm not big into treating everyone equally," Melrose said. "Every player is different. Vinny Lecavalier is different from Steven Stamkos. Some guys need a pat on the back and some guys need a kick in the butt, but good coaches find out what pushes each player. I'll tell each player what I expect and want, but when it comes to situations and how I'll handle them, it’ll be on a player-to-player basis.

"I'm really excited to start the season. The new ownership group and the commitment they've shown to winning and to me have made it very exciting. I missed coaching immensely and am looking forward to the upcoming season."

Contact Mike Morreale at

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