WINNIPEG — Lightning star Steven Stamkos stood in a hallway of the team hotel Sunday, not in shock at the firing of coach Guy Boucher, but helpless to explain the incongruity of it all.
It was just about two months ago Tampa Bay was 6-1-0, the talk of the league and optimistic it would return to the playoffs.
But a 7-16-1 skid left it with a 13-17-1 record entering Sunday, three points from the bottom of the 30-team league, and left general manager Steve Yzerman admitting to (but not really explaining) the philosophical divide that had developed between him and the coach.
"Definitely not what we envisioned when we started 6-1," Stamkos said. "That's the furthest thing from your mind. At that point, you're thinking very positive thoughts. To do a complete 180 is very frustrating."
Yzerman said he wants a new coach in place "as quickly as possible," and the top candidates are believed to be former Sabres coach Lindy Ruff and Jon Cooper, who coaches the Lightning's American Hockey League farm team in Syracuse, N.Y.
Ruff, 53, who this season was fired in his 16th season with Buffalo, has ties to Yzerman through Team Canada. Yzerman was the general manager and Ruff an assistant coach when Team Canada beat the U.S. team to win the Olympic gold medal in 2010.
Cooper, 45, last season led Tampa Bay's farm team in Norfolk, Va., to the AHL title.
Against the Jets on Sunday at the MTS Center, assistant coaches Dan Lacroix, Steve Thomas and Marty Raymond worked behind the bench.
"I have no desire or intention to be critical of Guy Boucher," Yzerman said. "He's a good man. He's worked extremely hard, as hard as any coach. He's an innovative guy."
That said, Yzerman added, "I'm not satisfied with the direction our hockey club is going."
It was easy to see it going in the wrong direction in Wednesday's 4-2 loss at Toronto and Saturday's 5-3 loss at Ottawa. In both games, the Lightning fell behind 4-0 and played without urgency or passion.
The loss to the Senators was the last straw — Boucher was fired when the team got back to its hotel — as Tampa Bay fell behind 4-0 in the first period in what Boucher had said would be a "bounce-back game."
Tougher to decipher was this from Yzerman:
"Philosophically, without being specific, there's a difference between myself and (Boucher). ... I have certain beliefs as a manager of the team what I want to see, and unless I'm prepared to go behind the bench and do it my way, I can't instruct the coach to do it the way I want it done."
Yzerman went no further and Boucher, 41, with a year left on a four-year deal, did not respond to several phone messages.
But former Flames general manager Craig Button, an NHL Network analyst, provided some speculative clarity.
Regardless of personnel, Button said, "There are certain disciplines every team has to have in place, the fundamentals of the game, they're essential.
"I was watching that game (against Ottawa) and was in shock. The fundamentals of a team game and the fundamentals of team play just weren't there. ... Fine, you want to play defensive, but why aren't you protecting? Why isn't the middle of the ice being protected? Why are other teams getting so many scoring chances?"
Certainly, Boucher was not coaching to lose, and his 84-62-19 record and that in his first season he led the Lightning to the 2011 Eastern Conference final, are pluses on his resume.
But Tampa Bay seems destined to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season and Boucher's message seemed to stop getting through, especially to those veterans whose play recently had dropped off.
Yzerman said he did not fire Boucher specifically because of a step back in play from some veterans, but he acknowledged, "That affected the timing of the decision. That was a concern. I was watching that game (against Ottawa) and said, 'I can't subject Guy to this any more.' "
Even so, Yzerman said he did not believe players gave up on Boucher: "I'm not saying that. It's just a frustrating situation that was quickly worsening."
Stamkos said it was like a snowball rolling downhill, gaining size and speed.
"Someone has to take the blame and history shows it's the coach," he said. "Sometimes it's unfair. In this case, you wish you could have played better."
"We just weren't getting any results," wing Marty St. Louis said. "It's unfortunate. Guy is a hard-working guy. He's a good man. He gave everything he had here. He really tried to find answers. It just didn't work out."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]