Lightning coach Barry Melrose knows exactly how the media game is played.
Twelve years as an analyst for ESPN provides such insight.
So, when reporters took shots at his team for its stumbling start, Melrose reminded it was early. When columnists speculated his job already is in jeopardy (Sports Illustrated incorrectly predicted he would be the first coach fired), he shrugged.
"That's their job," Melrose said. "I know all those guys. When we win a couple, I'll be the greatest coach in the world, so I don't worry about stuff like that. If you worry about stuff like that, you shouldn't be in the business."
It is difficult to imagine a coach with a shorter honeymoon.
Chicago's Denis Savard was canned after four games, but that was the final act of a scripted drama. Melrose is a new hire in a situation that screams for patience: 15 new players learning a new system while their coach, out of the game since he was fired by the Kings in April 1995, tries to re-establish his credibility and that of a team that last season was the league's worst.
But given the money owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie have put into the roster, even Melrose said, "I don't think we have a year. … I'm under no illusion I have a five-year plan."
If there is a timetable, general manager Brian Lawton isn't saying. "We're still in the earliest stages of evaluation," he said of a process he stressed is not focused solely on coaching.
"We expect a lot from our players. We expect a lot from our coaches, so thus, my comments would be we still have a lot of work to do. We're not where we want to be or expect to be."
But heading into tonight's game with the Senators at the St. Pete Times Forum, things are better. Tampa Bay (3-3-3) has won two straight, and three of four, and Thursday dominated the Northeast-leading Sabres 5-2 in Buffalo.
"The guys better know their roles now and understand what it's going to take for us to be a good team, and a lot of that has to do with him," left wing Mark Recchi said of Melrose. "Has everyone done the right things? No. We haven't as players. But he cares. He's passionate about it and wants us to do the right things."
Recchi said that Melrose had instant credibility with the players "because he is a hockey person and we know he's a good coach, so he had respect coming in."
Melrose, 52, said the only way for him to earn self-respect was to get behind the bench.
"If I wouldn't have taken the job, I would have been a hypocrite," Melrose said. "I'm sitting up there (at ESPN) and criticizing other people and talking stuff, and if you have a chance to get back in the fight and don't take it, I would have been very disappointed in myself for not having the courage to do that."
Asked if coaching is different from when he led the Wayne Gretzky Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup final, Melrose dragged out what he admits is an old line that exaggerates to make a point.
The Kings, he said, had three players who were millionaires. "Now, I have three who aren't."
Seriously, have new defensive strategies and antiobstruction rules made it a different game?
"That's the easy answer," he said. "But the good teams still win with character, they still win with competition, they still outwork you. Goaltending is still the most important position of any position in sports, and hockey is still a game of passion."
Shortly after beating the Sabres, Melrose was asked if the Lightning's two-game winning streak qualified him as a genius.
"No, just smart," he said. "For a genius, you have to win, like, four in a row."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/lightning.