TAMPA — Coach Barry Melrose was clear before Saturday's game with the Wild, he expects more from his best players.
To drive home the point, he scratched RW Radim Vrbata, who had zero points, six shots and zero hits in four games.
"Vrbata hasn't given us what we hoped," Melrose said. "The message has to start going to the guys: You have to give us what we want, or you're not going to be in the lineup."
David Koci made his first start of the season as a reward for his hard work, Melrose said, and, it would seem, to counter Minnesota enforcer Derek Boogaard. That Vrbata, one of the offseason's prime acquisitions and signed to a three-year, $9-million contract, was the fall guy was significant.
Not that he has been the only top forward struggling. RW Marty St. Louis has a goal but just five shots. LW Ryan Malone has a goal on just eight.
Even captain Vinny Lecavalier, coming off shoulder surgery and with a team-best two goals, is still trying to find his way.
"If you're a real goal scorer and not scoring, what else are you giving our team?" Melrose said, speaking generally. "They have to decide. If you're not scoring … you have to help the team in other ways."
A BAD EARLY RETURN: Koci's first shift ended with a holding penalty. Ten seconds after he got out of the box, he was called for interference. He had one other eight-second shift in the period and did not play again.
"Koci has to learn tough guys are marked men," Melrose said.
MALIK NEEDS WORK: D Marek Malik was not in Saturday's lineup and, according to Melrose, "is not in quite as good shape as we hoped he would be."
Malik, who still has not signed a contract, said he skated five or six times a week in his native Czech Republic. But as Melrose pointed out, "Skating every day isn't like pushing yourself every day. If you're skating by yourself, it's really tough to push yourself."
"Every day it's going to be better conditioning-wise and feeling more comfortable with the team," Malik said.
RAYS OF HOPE: Fs Marian Gaborik and Andrew Brunette picked the Rays in the Wild's team baseball pool and wore Rays caps in the locker room. Gaborik said he was confident Tampa Bay would beat Boston. "They have two games at home," he said.
ODDS AND ENDS: F Ryan Craig (groin) skated with the team and called it "a positive step forward." Melrose said Craig is "close." … Melrose said Wild C Mikko Koivu, who entered Saturday with a league-best nine points, "is one of the five best young players in the game." … F Jason Ward and D Jamie Heward were scratched.