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Tampa Bay Lightning in a rush to judgments early in NHL season

TAMPA — The clock is ticking and the puck is moving and the coach is yelling and for the members of the Tampa Bay Lightning it must seem like just another day in a season in which there always seems to be deals to debate or rumors to dismiss or shortcomings to discuss and players in the in-box and others in the out-box and leads that keep slipping away.

For the Lightning, this is how the season has gone: breathless, exhausting and, at times, out of control.

Patience?

Didn't this team just trade patience to the Flyers?

From the beginning of training camp it has been like this. This team has been a run-on sentence with no time to pause and no place for punctuation. It has been a runaway train filled with rushed judgments, snap decisions and hasty exits.

Players come, players go. The coach scolds, the coach skips. The scorers do not score. The penalty killers do not kill. The high-priced investments do not deliver. And after a 4-3 loss to Detroit on Thursday night, you cannot help but wonder what is next.

After all, the most surprising part of the Lightning's early season has been that the people in charge don't seem to think it's as early as you might think. It is only November, and the season is only 16 games old, and yet there is a frantic, impulsive feel to this team that you normally do not find until the trade deadline or the playoff push.

In other words, for a team that hasn't shown many signs that it is going anywhere, it seems in a awful hurry to get there.

If any team in the league had a right to plead for a little time, it should have been the Lightning, with new owners, with a new general manager, with a coach who hadn't been behind the bench in 13 years and with a roster that has been rebuilt and then re-rebuilt. And the parts haven't stopped moving yet.

Six weeks in and already there have been questions about how much time Barry Melrose has before his seat gets hot.

Six weeks in and already the team has only one defenseman left who was on the ice on opening night.

Six weeks in and already people are wondering who unplugged the Lightning's offense.

The turmoil goes on. The season was two games old when Melrose started talking about how his team wasn't working hard enough, and it was seven games old when the booing started, and it was 14 games old when Melrose ditched practice, taking a page from either Ferris Bueller or Sam Wyche (who once skipped a practice with the Bucs).

Remember Matt Carle, the defenseman of the future? For him, the future was 12 games before the Lightning fell out of love with him. In hindsight, Carle was either overvalued or overhyped by the Lighting, perhaps both.

It has all seemed a bit much, and still there are 66 games to go.

As much as anyone, followers of the Lightning should know there is such a thing as being too patient (Jay Feaster) and not patient enough (Rick Dudley).

So which is this new group? Is this constant tinkering going to be the battle plan of a franchise? Is it the result of so many new voices all trying to be heard? Or are these merely the first steps of a bad team as it struggles to go forward?

Perhaps it was a good thing, then, when principal owner Oren Koules spent much of Thursday morning moving among his players, grinning and encouraging them. He told Steven Stamkos (who is minus-7) to smile. He slapped Radim Vrbata (who hasn't scored a goal) on the shoulder.

Koules will tell you that the tinkering is necessary. The Lightning was the 30th team in the NHL last year for a reason. How can you blame a guy for making a few moves, especially with a team that has been guilty of being overly patient the past few seasons.

"There have been a lot of changes," Melrose acknowledged. "Is that good? No. We would like to have stability. Hopefully, we can get on a roll and get some stability. But when you're struggling, you can't stand pat and think it's going to turn itself around. You have to make changes.

"Patience? No one is going to give us patience. I've been around long enough to know it's 'what have you done for us today?' We know that. We've got to get it turned around. I'd much rather have owners who are trying to improve every day than ones who sit back and don't care."

How long is it going to take? Maybe less time than you think, said Melrose.

"This team can be a playoff team," he said. "And once you get in, you have a chance to win. We're six points out of first place. We have to start taking care of business."

From the sound of it, Melrose sounded as if he, too, was in a bit of a hurry for things to change.

Given what he has seen so far, it's kind of hard to blame him.

Tampa Bay Lightning in a rush to judgments early in NHL season 11/13/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 14, 2008 9:25pm]
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