TAMPA — Former Lightning coach Barry Melrose said he and owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie clashed constantly over player ice time, especially when it came to rookie and No. 1 draft choice Steven Stamkos.
"It was a constant battle between me and the owners," Melrose said Tuesday. "They wanted Stamkos to play more. They wanted (Radim) Vrbata to play more. They wanted (Gary) Roberts to play more. Every day it was a constant battle. Every conversation was about it, and I wouldn't do that.
"I'm a big believer in you have to earn ice time. If you're not one of the best guys, you don't deserve to play no matter who you are or how much you make."
But new coach Rick Tocchet said, "We have to give him a little more minutes and see what he can do."
Stamkos played a career-high 17:55 against the Panthers while on a line with Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis. He took nine shots, most by a Lightning player this season. His assist was his first point in nine games.
"He played very good," Tocchet said. "His energy level was there. We've been talking to him a lot, keeping his spirits up. You can tell, the last three or four days, he's light on his feet, he's bouncing around in practice. You can tell he's excited, and he deserved the ice time."
LECAVALIER SAYS NO CONSPIRACY: Lecavalier, the captain, denied a player revolt was responsible for Melrose's firing.
"Not at all," the center said when asked if, as Melrose has alleged, players lobbied Koules and Barrie. "We were not involved in any decisions. I don't think anybody went up there and talked to ownership about it. It was a surprise to everybody."
Melrose deferred when asked to whom he was referring when he said on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada and to ESPN radio's Fabulous Sports Babe that players who "didn't like being accountable" conspired against him.
"No, I don't think so," he said. "I'm done with it now. It's water under the bridge. I'm going to move on with what's going on."
If the players were involved, Lecavalier said, it was that they did not play to their capabilities.
"You can't just blame the coach for that," he said. "We have to blame ourselves. Everybody is accountable for what they do on the ice. We have to be ready to play every night, not just the coach waking us up. We have to do that ourselves. We have to feel responsible, also, for what happened to Barry."
WHAT'S NEXT?: Melrose predicted he "quickly" will be back in broadcasting. He also said his coaching days are over.
"It was perfect," he said. "My last game (Thursday) was against the Red Wings, the organization I started with. I think God was trying to tell me something."
TWO-MAN GAME: Tocchet said for now he will experiment with two-player groups on forward lines (such as C Jussi Jokinen and LW Mark Recchi) and rotate a third player.
As a result, Stamkos will play some at wing with Lecavalier and St. Louis, but also center, his natural position.
ODDS AND ENDS: The Lightning's previous team high of 51 shots also came against the Panthers, on Jan. 17, 2004, a 2-1 loss at Florida. … LW Ryan Malone (leg) skated briefly Tuesday. Tocchet said an MRI exam showed no structural damage, but he could not predict when Malone would play. … F Ryan Craig was scratched. … Rays president Matt Silverman said, "Let's play hockey," in pregame ceremonies.