Tampa Bay Lightning fires coach Barry Melrose after 16 games

Fired Tampa coach Barry Melrose is owed $2.25-million if he doesn’t get another hockey job.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Fired Tampa coach Barry Melrose is owed $2.25-million if he doesn’t get another hockey job.

For Barry Melrose, there is no mystery why he was fired as the Lightning's coach.

"They just didn't like the way the players responded to me," he said Friday, 90 minutes after he was let go. "The team wasn't playing the way they wanted, or playing up to expectations."

So, as of 3:30 p.m., Melrose was done, a little more than four months after being hired and only 16 games into the season.

Firing Melrose, 52, who left a 12-year gig as an ESPN analyst to join Tampa Bay, could cost $2.25-million, the full value of his three-year deal, if Melrose doesn't get another hockey job. Add the $1.3-million being paid former coach John Tortorella, fired in June, and you're talking serious dead money.

Rick Tocchet, Melrose's associate coach, is interim head coach. "We're going to see what he can do and evaluate our options from there," said general manager Brian Lawton.

After a 5-7-4 start that put Tampa Bay 13th in the 15-team Eastern Conference, ownership and management believed it had no choice. The team scored a league-worst 33 goals despite investing heavily in scoring forwards in the summer.

"The direction of the club is concerning to me," Lawton said. "We're a higher-scoring club than we have shown. … It's not something I'm excited about. Philosophically, it's not the direction I want to see our club going."

The motivating factor

When Melrose was hired, his responsibility was to motivate. Tocchet handled the X's and O's.

Melrose's ability to inspire was lauded by former players, including NHL great Wayne Gretzky, who starred on the Los Angeles Kings team Melrose led to the 1993 Stanley Cup final. But the Lightning was plagued by inconsistency. Even Melrose said, "All I asked for was a 60-minute effort every night. … I wasn't able to get them to do it."

There also were concerns about playing time for 2008 No. 1 draft choice Steven Stamkos, who is averaging 11:47 and recently lost his power-play time to underachieving Radim Vrbata.

But Lawton said he made the decision to fire Melrose in less than a week, which means the recently completed 1-3-1 road trip was crucial, especially, perhaps, Wednesday's terrible 4-0 loss to the Florida Panthers.

Melrose had called a team meeting Tuesday to discuss the players' inconsistent effort. It apparently got heated, and Melrose skipped a practice to give each side a break.

Lawton said he had no problem with a coach trying to motivate his players, but when Tampa Bay flopped the next night, "That was a concern."

"I guess they'd seen enough," Melrose said.

Still, it was only 16 games for an organization trying to integrate new coaches, a new system and 14 new players.

"I've never been an excuse guy," Melrose said. "They didn't like the way I was handling the players. It doesn't matter if it's fair. It doesn't matter if it's one game, 10 games or 100, my job was to get this team to win. We were two games under .500. They thought that was unacceptable."

A new direction

Tocchet, 44, is one of two NHL players with at least 400 goals and 2,500 penalty minutes. He was a well-respected assistant with the Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes before joining Tampa Bay this season.

He has some baggage. He pleaded guilty in May 2007 to running a sports gambling ring, though no mob ties or betting on hockey were apparent. His two-year probation ends in August.

"Rick is a very straightforward individual," Lawton said. "He has an excellent accountability factor. He's very structured and very organized in his approach. We're looking for him to re-energize this group and refocus them in the right direction.

Said Tocchet, who continues working with assistants Wes Walz and Cap Raeder: "The wakeup call has been made by ownership, and it's time to put up or shut up. What they're looking for is the team to play the right way and play hard. That's what I'm going to demand of them."

Lawton said he would meet Friday night with a "leadership group" of players to explain the move and set standards.

"It's not a light issue when someone loses their job," Lawton said. "I'm responsible. They're responsible. They need to know that and look in the mirror."

Lawton acknowledged that firing a coach as a remedy for the failure of a team is "unfair" and a "raw deal," and said, "I don't think this group of players will be absolved from blame."

"We can't kid ourselves that as players we are not as responsible for our record," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "With (Tocchet) and Walz, we're going to work hard and get back on the right track."

Tampa Bay Lightning fires coach Barry Melrose after 16 games 11/14/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 16, 2008 10:48am]

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