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Lightning hiring Melrose would be a shocker

Before coming to ESPN, Barry Melrose coached the Kings to the 1993 Cup final, which they lost in five to the Canadiens.

Associated Press

Before coming to ESPN, Barry Melrose coached the Kings to the 1993 Cup final, which they lost in five to the Canadiens.

John Tortorella, out? That's going to be surprising.

Barry Melrose, in? That's going to be staggering.

Nevertheless, strap yourself in because it is about to happen. I am convinced of it. And when it does, the sport of hockey will have little time to discuss anything else.

As moves go, this one will be audacious and ambitious, noisy and controversial, risky and bold. It will be headline-making, debate-starting, eyebrow-raising and blog-belabored. Some will roll their eyes, some will shake their heads and some will refuse to believe it until a half-dozen games have been played and Melrose is still here.

Tortorella? Goodbye?

Melrose? Good grief.

From all indications, the deal is all but done. Soon enough, the Lightning will say farewell to Tortorella, the most successful coach in franchise history. And it will replace him with Melrose, who has spent the past 12 years playing Barry Melrose on TV.

And as of that moment, the sight, the sound and the culture of the Lightning locker room will have changed forever.

For the better?

We will see.

It is true enough that, from time to time, a locker room needs to hear the sound of a different voice. Tortorella himself suggested that perhaps it was time for a new coach here after last season came to a close, and although he later tried to retract his words, maybe he had a point.

Look, I'm a Torts guy. I saw how he raised the standards of the locker room, and I saw how he raised the Stanley Cup. Yeah, he was a blunt, irascible toe-stepper of a coach, but I don't think he ever snarled a word that he didn't intend to make his team better. This was the guy who gave the tough love to Vinny Lecavalier, the guy who told Ken Hitchcock to shut his yap, the guy who drove his team to a championship.

As voices go, however, Tortorella's was always raised to 11. When any coach is that loud, that demanding, he risks losing some of his message. The danger is not veterans tuning out, as some may say. The danger is that young players can freeze up at the sound and worse, they can become hesitant on the ice, afraid to make a mistake.

Think about last season. Yes, the Lightning had a lot of shortcomings. But was that team bad enough to finish with the No. 1 draft choice? No, it wasn't.

So yeah, even though some of us would have brought back Torts, it is understandable that a new owner would not.

On the other hand, Barry Melrose?

At this point, you may feel free to say: Really?

It is easy to scoff. After all, it seems as if Melrose has been on television longer than Letterman. You know how it works. The more time a man sits in front of a camera, the easier it is to forget that he ever stood behind a bench. So chuckle away. If the Bucs hired John Madden as coach, if the Magic hired Dick Vitale, the punch lines would probably be the same.

Because of that, it would be easy to dismiss this as a splash move by a new ownership group. After all, Melrose hasn't coached since 1995, and he coached only three seasons, and he finished 12 games under .500. It would be safer, of course, to recycle a Pat Burns or a Ron Wilson or a coach who had been freshly fired somewhere else.

Of course, the Lightning knows all of that, too. So why would the franchise be interested in Melrose?

Let's be fair here. Melrose is a sharp guy, he's respected by his former players, and no one has ever doubted that he knows hockey. For crying out loud, Tampa Bay isn't talking about hiring Chris Berman. Over the years, other teams have tried to hire Melrose, too, so perhaps there is still something there.

That said, it's a gamble. Melrose will have to prove that all of the time away didn't diminish his coaching abilities. He's going to have to prove that he's the right coach at the right time.

If you buy into the concept that the Lightning needs a change, then yes, it needs to be a change. You don't want to simply trade in one loud voice for another. Just ask Van Halen.

With the Kings, Melrose had the reputation as a players coach, as a positive voice who took the pressure out of the air in a locker room.

Perhaps the Lightning could use some of that. They are about to draft Steven Stamkos, who needs to be nurtured. They traded for a young goaltender last season in Mike Smith, who needs to be protected. This is no longer a locker room of champions. This is a work that is, once again, in progress.

Melrose for Tortorella? In the end, it won't matter that this was a splashy move or a solid one, a questionable move or a popular one.

In the end, all that will matter is whether it was the right move.

In the games to come, the answer will be found on a scoreboard.

You know, the one at the St. Pete Times Forum, conveniently relocated to Channelside Drive and Melrose Place.

Lightning hiring Melrose would be a shocker 05/30/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 4, 2008 4:17pm]
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