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Player turnover, Stamkos' slow start hurt Melrose

by John McGourty /
Several factors combined to force Barry Melrose's firing just 16 games into his return as an NHL coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning — not the least of which was the underwhelming performance of rookie Steven Stamkos, nor the team's 5-7-4 record.

Stamkos, the No. 1 selection in the 2008 Entry Draft, has 2 goals and 2 assists in 16 games this season and is a minus-7. Melrose shifted him from his customary center position to right wing Thursday night against Detroit in an effort to get him on track.

Stamkos played the first 15 games at center, his natural position, but he had only 2 goals and 2 assists. Both goals came in a 5-2 victory at Buffalo in which he also had an assist. Without question, that was Stamkos' best game this season.

After six more unproductive games, Melrose moved Stamkos to right wing on a line with Gary Roberts and center Jussi Jokinen. Stamkos has averaged 11:47 of ice time, down from about 14 minutes a game a few weeks earlier, and played only 9:51 at wing, had no shots and was minus-1 in the loss to the Red Wings.

The Lightning scored the first two goals Thursday and then watched Detroit score four straight times in the second and third periods before cutting the deficit to one. That kind of hockey is hard to watch in your own building.

Additionally, the Lightning's 34 goals are the fewest in the NHL this season, 29 behind the league-leading San Jose Sharks. The Lightning were 14th in defense, surrendering 46 goals for a negative differential of 12. Tampa is 19th with 15.4 percent power-play success rate. Only seven teams were less effective than Tampa Bay at killing penalties. The Lightning killed off 79.5 percent of shorthanded situations.

Under Melrose, the Lightning were ineffective at home (2-3-3), on the road (3-4-1), in the Southeast Division (1-2-1) and in their last 10 games (4-5-1). They've lost three in a row heading into Sunday afternoon's game in Carolina.

Could a "better" coach have avoided Melrose's fate? It would have been difficult considering all the changes. Seventeen players who've worn the Lightning uniform this season were not with the team a year ago. Of those, defenseman Matt Carle and Jamie Heward already have been sent away. Mark Recchi, Vinny Prospal, Andrej Meszaros, Stamkos, Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Janne Niskala, Steve Eminger (acquired in the deal for Carle), Lukas Krajicek, Adam Hall, Evgeny Artyukhin, Radim Vrbata, Matt Pettinger, Marek Malik and Vladimir Mihalik are all new.

Gone are defensemen Dan Boyle, Filip Kuba, Shane O'Brien, Doug Janik, Brad Lukowich, Alexandre Picard and Matt Smaby. Departed forwards include Michel Ouellet, Mathieu Darche, Craig MacDonald, Nick Tarnasky, Andre Roy, Andreas Karlsson, Junior Lessard, Karl Stewart and Blair Jones.

No Lightning player ranks among the top 30 scorers in the NHL this season. Captain Vincent Lecavalier, who tied for sixth with 92 points last season, is second on Tampa Bay this year with 11 points, one behind linemate Martin St. Louis.

Some people will say new management has torn the team apart and in doing so, wasn't patient enough with Melrose. But the Lightning were the worst team in the NHL last season, and that's all the reason the new management group needed to make changes and offload high salaries to give them freedom to attract new players.

To date, four NHL teams have worse records than the Lightning.

Melrose coached the 1993 Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup Final before being let go two years later. He returned to the NHL with a 79-101-29 record in 209 games.

If it's any consolation to Melrose, who gave up his longtime position as a hockey analyst on ESPN to take the job this summer, his tenure is nowhere close to the shortest in the history of the NHL, or even this season: The Chicago Blackhawks fired Denis Savard in October, after just four games.

The great Sid Abel was gone after three games with the Kansas City Scouts. Another great, Roger Crozier, coached the Washington Capitals for one game. Hall of Famer Dick Duff could say "the deuce with it" after two games with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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