BUFFALO, N.Y. — Rick Tocchet's steady voice belied his heightened emotions.
Barry Melrose on Tuesday had again inserted himself into the Lightning's season with a radio interview in which he said he hopes Tampa Bay loses all its games and reiterated his belief that No. 1 draft choice Steven Stamkos is not NHL-ready.
But this time the fired Tampa Bay coach added that Tocchet, the assistant elevated to interim coach, is on ownership's string.
"I take it personally," Tocchet said. "I'm not a puppet. Ownership doesn't tell me who to play."
"I'm not a fan of people who go to the mike all the time to air their dirty laundry," Tocchet added. "You have a problem, it should have been done before."
Lightning general manager Brian Lawton said the organization wanted to "move past" Melrose's "classless" statements.
But in defense of Stamkos, he said, "I am extremely, extremely, extremely disappointed and upset, and I'm not going to stand for Barry Melrose taking shots at our players. To let an adult attack an 18-year-old hockey player, I think is ludicrous and embarrassing, and it is a shame he would go in that direction. He's a world-class player and only going to get better."
Melrose, since his Nov. 14 firing, has not been shy about attacking his former employer. And while Melrose, recently rehired as an ESPN analyst, told the Times he wants the story to go away, he will not hide from it, either.
"I'm in the TV business now," he said. "I can't say no comment. I'm not going to duck questions. I'm not going to lie. That's one of the things ESPN likes about me. I'm a TV analyst. I have to look at it from a different perspective."
It should be noted the Lightning is paying off Melrose's entire three-year, $2.25-million contract. But that didn't stop him from telling Toronto's 590-AM he was fired because, "The guys in charge decided they wanted to coach. … Now they've got guys in charge who let them do what they want."
Tocchet played for Melrose with the 1994-95 Kings. But owner Len Barrie, not Melrose, hired Tocchet as an assistant.
Melrose never has said he had trouble with any assistant.
"And the only reason I'm commenting on this is it was insinuated I was told what to do," Tocchet said. "I'm not a puppet or told what to do by ownership.
"I'm the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The decisions are made by me as to who is on the ice with the help of my great hockey staff."
Asked if ownership ever told Melrose whom to play, Tocchet said, "I wasn't with Barry every day. But I never was in meetings with him where he said they called him and said you have to play certain guys certain minutes. Like any organization, you have discussions about players. … Nobody has got a walkie-talkie saying, 'Hey, Barry, put this guy on the ice.' "
Tocchet also countered Melrose's take that Stamkos, with three goals, 11 points in 27 games, "is not ready for the NHL."
"He's just not strong enough physically to play against defensemen that are 6-3 or 6-4 who can skate as good as him," Melrose added. "I think he's minus-10 or minus-11. He just can't check in his own end well enough."
"I think he's wrong," Tocchet said. "Steven Stamkos is a dynamic young player. It's my job and our staff to teach him to play the game the right way. He's done that sometimes, and sometimes he's made mistakes, and that's the process of a young guy."
Melrose admitted the process of disengaging himself from the Lightning has been arduous.
"We should move on," he told the Times. "The thing is, it's a good story. The press likes it and that's why they keep bringing it up. I'm a name in hockey and Tampa made a big splash with all the stuff they did. When you do that, and when things don't work out, you become a big story."
"Our franchise just doesn't need that right now," said Tocchet, whose team, last in the league and winless in eight, plays at Buffalo tonight. "We're reeling. We're trying to win and we're trying to get guys playing the right way. I don't want to hear Barry on every weekly radio show. That's why I want to get this out."
NOTES: C Chris Gratton and RW Radim Vrbata cleared waivers. Gratton was assigned to AHL Norfolk, Vrbata to his hometown team, Mlada Boleslav, in the Czech Republic. … G Riku Helenius was re-assigned from Norfolk to ECHL Mississippi.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.