"I was Frank Sinatra … I did it my way and I'm leaving here with my head held high," Melrose said on Hockey Night in Canada's pre-game show Saturday. "I didn't sell my soul to the devil. I did everything the way I think it should be done. It didn't work. I'm fine with that and I can live with myself."
The Lightning elevated associate coach Rick Tocchet to interim head coach when they fired Melrose less than 24 hours after a 4-3 loss to Detroit before a sellout crowd full of Red Wings fans dropped them to 5-7-4. The Lightning play their first game under Tocchet on Sunday at Carolina.
Tampa Bay entered the weekend last in the NHL in offense, averaging 2.06 goals per game. The team was 16th in the League in 2007-08 with a 2.70 average, but finished last in the NHL with 71 points (31-42-9).
That earned them the No. 1 overall pick, which they used to take center Steven Stamkos. The Lightning made Stamkos the focus of an offseason marketing campaign, but he has produced just 2 goals (both in the same game) and 2 assists in 16 games.
Melrose limited the 18-year-old's ice time and moved him from center to right wing against Detroit. He said he wasn't willing to give Stamkos more ice time merely because he was selected No. 1 in the draft.
"They wanted (Stamkos) to play more, but I can't give a guy ice time just because he's a No. 1 pick. I'm not like that," Melrose told host Ron MacLean. "I can't give guys ice time just because they're paid a lot of money. I'm not like that. You have to earn ice time. It's your only power a coach has to motivate players.
"If you're giving it out just because the owners tell you to, or because the guy was No. 1, you're going to be fired whether it's 16 games or 30 games."
Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton said Friday that,
"In Steven's case, ice time was obviously a topic of some discussion — but I've always felt coaches decide on how much players will play. The factual history (regarding ice time this season) is that it was varied night to night."
In announcing the coaching change on Friday, Lawton also said management is "not happy with the direction we're heading in. We're looking for Rick to re-energize this group and take it in the right direction.
"The players and I must now take responsibility for what has happened here. It's a difficult job and, ultimately, one person is paying the price for the lack of deliverance of performance. I feel we are a higher-scoring club than what we've showed, and I did not like the direction our team was going."
Melrose, who coached the Los Angeles Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup Final, replaced John Tortorella, who coached the Lightning to the 2004 Stanley Cup, on June 24. Melrose had been dismissed by the Kings in 1995 after a six-game losing streak and spent the next 13 years as a hockey analyst for ESPN.
Melrose told MacLean that his firing was the result of the players not being happy with the way he coached.
"They're professionals. They make a ton of money," he said. "We don't have a young team. We're the oldest team in the NHL. These guys know what's expected of them. They know that they've got to play a hard, physical style. That's why they got me. That's why they wanted me to coach. They knew how I am.
"The players have power here and they exercised that power. Now, they can play who they want and how much they want and when they want and don't demand a lot of them. Everybody's happy in Tampa right now."
Melrose reduced the ice time of Lightning stars Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, who have struggled offensively. He said the reduction in ice time was made because of the team's poor showing in the third period last season, which he said stemmed from the Bolts' top forwards being overworked.
"Tampa Bay was the worst team in the third period last season," he said. "They didn't have enough left to compete in the third period. Lecavalier's numbers are down (this season) basically because he didn't kill penalties."
Melrose, 52, becomes the second coach to be dismissed this season. Chicago replaced Denis Savard with Joel Quenneville on Oct. 16 after just four games. Melrose had signed a three-year contract.
Meanwhile, Tocchet's 45-minute practice session Saturday left more than one player gasping for air.
"The tempo is going to be driven harder," Tocchet said. "We have to increase the energy level in some players. We've got to start getting these guys cranking on the ice, playing a high-tempo game."
Tocchet's coaching style will include lessons learned from the coaches he played and worked for, including Scotty Bowman, Mike Keenan, Wayne Gretzky and Jim Schoenfeld. It also will reflect his own hard-nosed playing days.
"Paul Coffey left me a message. 'Make sure you do what you believe in. Don't compromise,"' Tocchet said. "I'm a pretty easy-going guy, a fair guy, but I believe in a certain way to play."
Lawton also said he anticipates a different approach with Tocchet in command.
"Barry is a tremendous human being, and I have a lot of respect for him; he's passionate and wears his heart on his sleeve," he said. "I do feel there are some differences in the way Barry and Rick approach things, and there's nothing wrong with that. I think Rick is more structured and more detail-oriented."
Melrose's return after 13 years away from coaching was surprising, and he tried to change things on a team that had made wholesale personnel changes, including a new ownership group, a new GM and a host of new players. Tampa's roster consists of eight players age 25 or younger, including Stamkos.
"It's harder to get guys to play hard every night," he told ESPN News Friday night when asked about the biggest changes in the NHL during his time as a broadcaster. "There were lots of nights we didn't compete hard enough. That's my responsibility.
"I expect players to care about winning and I demand that players play hard every night. I didn't get that enough — that was one of the problems."
Melrose made major line changes for the of the Detroit game and was rewarded with the team's first three-goal game since Nov. 5 in New Jersey, a stretch of five games.
In the end, he said, the team's problems stemmed from an inability to put the puck in the net.
"Who was the team that had the lowest goals-against in the first period this year? The Tampa Bay Lightning. We're ahead of Detroit, we're ahead of all of those teams. If a team doesn't know what to do, why would they be a good defensive team? Our goals-against are among the best in the NHL," he said. "We didn't win because we can't score. We're the lowest-scoring team in the NHL. That's why Tampa Bay is not winning.
"If Vinny has a normal season or if Marty has a normal start to the season, we're probably in first place in our division. We just can't put the puck in the net. (Radim) Vrbata hasn't scored a goal in 40 games. This is a guy they're counting on for 30, 40 goals. That's what's holding Tampa Bay back. It's offensively, not defensively."