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Lightning officials counter Melrose's accusations

Wednesday, 12.10.2008 / 1:02 PM / News

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

"Ownership doesn't tell me who to play; they have been very supportive of me. I have a great coaching staff that helps me make decisions and we're making strides now."
-- Rick Tocchet

It's safe to say the headline-grabbing comments made in a radio interview by Barry Melrose against the Tampa Bay Lightning were not well received by his former team.

Almost a month after he was dismissed as the team's head coach after 16 games, Melrose went on a Toronto radio station Tuesday morning and accused the Lightning of interfering with his ability to coach. He also directed some parting shots at Len Barrie, one of the team's co-owners.

Officials throughout the Lightning organization were quick to counter Melrose's assertions on FAN 590 in Toronto.

Interim head coach Rick Tocchet, elevated from his role as associate coach when Melrose was dismissed on Nov. 14 after posting a 5-7-4 mark, was puzzled and angered by Melrose's comments.

"I take it personal, to be honest, I'm not a puppet," Tocchet told the Tampa Tribune. "Ownership doesn't tell me who to play; they have been very supportive of me. I have a great coaching staff that helps me make decisions and we're making strides now. This is our training camp right now. We're trying to get our systems into place, and we now have a system."

Since Tocchet has taken over as head coach, Tampa Bay has gone 1-6-4. The Lightning are currently last in the Eastern Conference with six wins and 20 points.

With so many issues facing the team, Tocchet believes a public sparring match between the former coach and the organization is the last thing the franchise needs.

"I'm the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the decisions are made by me as to who is on the ice, with the help of a great hockey staff," Tocchet said. "Our franchise doesn't need this right now. We're reeling. We're trying to win. We're trying to get the guys to play the right way. I just think if we all put this to rest. … I don't want to hear Barry on every weekly radio show. That's why I want to get this out."

Barrie, the Lightning co-owner, was mystified by Melrose's strong assertions that ownership meddled in the day-to-day affairs of the coaching staff. He expressed his view as a Tuesday afternoon guest of Mike Ross and Phil Esposito on "In the Slot" on XM Radio 204.

"I don't know who was in telling Barry what to do because I don't like to get up in the morning," Barrie said. "I never heard about that. It must have been (co-owner) Oren Koules or (general manager) Brian Lawton, but I have a hard time believing that. We had four coaches there that we let coach."
Barrie also said it was some of Melrose's other comments and actions that led to his dismissal. He cited an incident in early November where Melrose addressed the team at practice before walking out and leaving Tocchet to run the actual practice, as well as Melrose's verbal attacks on some of his players.

"For me, it just came down to when Barry went after Vinny Lecavalier and then went after the team and walked off the ice," Barrie said. "You can't lose the hockey team in a six-week period and Barry said it himself that he lost the team and didn't connect with the guys. If you don't connect with your team and you've lost the team 15 games into the season, you're dead."
Melrose was especially harsh on rookie Steven Stamkos, the 18-year-old forward who was the No. 1 pick in the 2008 Entry Draft. Stamkos has struggled and has just 3 goals and 8 assists -- and a minus-11 rating -- in 27 games.

Tocchet said Tuesday that he did not agree with the criticism Melrose levied against Stamkos.

"I just think he's wrong," Tocchet said. "I don't think his assessment is right. I think Steve Stamkos is a dynamic, young player. It's my job, and our staff's, to teach him to play the right way. He's done that sometimes, and sometimes he's made mistakes, and that's the process of a young guy."

Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton defended Stamkos early last week.

"Steven's doing terrific," Lawton told NHL.com before a Dec. 2 game against the Flyers. "It's a learning process, but he's certainly played quite a bit lately and starting to score more. He's starting to spread his wings a little bit. He's a young player but he has a very bright future and I've been pleased with him."

Stamkos said that same day that the coaching change had helped him start to rediscover his game.

"It's like night and day," Stamkos told NHL.com. "The coaching staff has been outstanding because they get every player prepared. We've been doing lots of video work, so we can see where the problems are and what we need to do to correct it. There's a lot more structure and it's really on us as players to win some games now. (The coaches) are doing all they can but it's tough and frustrating when you're losing."

Barrie admitted during his Tuesday afternoon radio interview that he "told Barry Melrose about five or six things in the whole eight weeks I was there and he didn't listen to one.

"Maybe Barry should have listened every once in a while because he lost the team fast," Barrie said. "Go ask the players, don't sit here and ask me."

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.
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