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Melrose out as coach of Lightning

by Mike G. Morreale /
Less than five months after he was hired, the Tampa Bay Lightning fired coach Barry Melrose on Friday after just 16 games.

Rick Tocchet, the team's associate coach, was elevated to interim head coach. The Melrose firing comes on the heels of the team's 4-3 loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night.

"It's a tough day for all of us, but none more so than Barry," Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton said. "I'm not happy at where we're at today and am not pleased 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."

Tampa Bay is currently last in the League in offense, scoring 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).

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. But the season hasn't gone as hoped with a 5-7-4 record and a fourth-place showing in the Southeast Division. 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.

"I spoke with Barry earlier today in a private conversation and will meet with select players (later Friday night)," Lawton said. "I want to communicate to them the seriousness of this. This isn't a light issue when someone loses their job; there's a lot of unhappiness and I'm responsible and the players are responsible. Now they need to look in the mirror and acknowledge that.

"What I'm mostly concerned about is the internal reaction among the players. If they all go home and say, 'Oh, that's too bad,' then we have the wrong group of players. If they go home and say, 'This is horrible and I feel horrible,' that's what I'd like to see. We will continue to work on this until we get it right."

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.

Melrose said the firing didn't come as a total shock.

"I can't say I was totally surprised," he said in a telephone interview with ESPN News. "I am very disappointed. I would like to have had more time to turn things around."

He also said he took "full responsibility" for the Lightning's 5-7-4 record, adding that, "it doesn't matter whether I got a fair chance or not. There are no five-year plans in the NHL."

Lawton said the organization will honor the remaining years of the pact. He admitted there is currently no search for a new coach and no evaluation period has been set for Tocchet.

"I don't have any timetable set in my mind on that; things are happening quickly here and let's see what Rick can do," Lawton said. "We'd all like miracles to happen, but we know that's not gong to happen. Players need time to understand what's happening and we'll just move forward.

"We think this is a great opportunity for (Tocchet), and we believe he's the type of coach who can take the team to the next level," Lawton said. "Our players have a great deal of respect for him."

"What I'm mostly concerned about is the internal reaction among the players. If they all go home and say, 'Oh, that's too bad,' then we have the wrong group of players. If they go home and say, 'This is horrible and I feel horrible,' that's what I'd like to see. We will continue to work on this until we get it right."
 -- Lightning GM Brian Lawton
Lawton 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," Lawton 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 detailed-oriented."

The 44-year-old Tocchet is in his 25th year in the NHL as either a player or coach. He played 18 seasons with Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington and Phoenix, appearing in 1,144 games and scoring 440 goals, 952 points and 2,972 penalty minutes. In the summer of 2005, he became an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes, and spent 11 days as interim head coach in December 2005 when coach Wayne Gretzky took a personal leave of absence.

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. Their roster consists of eight players age 25 or younger, including Steven Stamkos, the first pick in the 2008 Entry Draft.

"It's harder to get guys to play hard every night," he told ESPN News 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."

Even in Thursday's game there was more change, as Melrose revamped his forward lines. He had Vaclav Prospal centering for Matt Pettinger and Martin St. Louis on the top unit; captain Vinny Lecavalier centering for Mark Recchi and Radim Vrbata; and Stamkos playing right wing for the first time this season alongside center Jussi Jokinen and Gary Roberts. Stamkos, who has 2 goals and 2 assists this season, has averaged just 11:47 of ice time.

"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," Lawton said. "The factual history (regarding ice time this season) is that it was varied night to night."

Melrose was satisfied with the contributions each line made throughout the course of the Detroit game. The line changes actually enabled Tampa to register its first three-goal game since Nov. 5 in New Jersey, a stretch of five games.

Said Melrose after the game: "We were just trying some stuff, trying to get some offense going. I like Steven on right wing and I thought he was much more active. I thought Pettinger came in and gave us some life and Prospal is a guy who can play anywhere. We're just trying to get guys going and trying to get some offense. I was pretty happy with everything. I thought all the changes we made looked good and there was more jump.

"It's not your God-given right to play with certain guys every night. I thought Pettinger looked great with Marty (St. Louis) and Vinny (Prospal)."

According to The St. Petersburg Times, Melrose didn't participate in Tuesday's practice after meeting with the team behind closed doors.

"I feel that it is the coach's prerogative to do as he sees fit; that's my personal feelings on the matter," Lawton said.

Contact Mike Morreale at

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