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Espo not handicapping three in coaching race

Terry Murray has not been spooked away. Barry Melrose might just treat the Lightning seriously. And Rick Paterson? He spent Halloween dressed up yet again as Terry Crisp.

How long Paterson can continue to call himself interim coach depends on how things go between Murray, Melrose and general manager Phil Esposito, who said Friday he had spoken briefly with both ex-NHL coaches in his continuing effort to find a successor to the fired Crisp.

"I know that Rick wants the job," Esposito said after practice at the Ice Sports Forum, where, for the second time in four days, he took an active role in helping coach the team.

"He feels he's ready to do it, and Rick knows he's right there in the same breath as Barry and Terry Murray."

Murray and Melrose have shown interest in the job, but how much either wants it remains to be seen.

Murray, fired by the Philadelphia Flyers after their Stanley Cup final debacle last season, has squashed rumors he might be frightened by the prospect of coming to a for-sale franchise in the midst of a nine-game winless streak.

"He's got some interest," Esposito said. "That's what he said."

But at what price?

"If he's gonna ask for a million dollars, he ain't gonna get it," said Esposito, who knows he will have to pay Murray at least the $400,000 he is believed to be getting from Philadelphia this season. "You don't just get a guy. It's a matter of negotiating."

Esposito said Murray, now a pro scout for the Flyers, referred him to his representative, Robin Burns. The sides will speak again, he said.

As for Melrose, Esposito said the Lightning is quite interested in the former Los Angeles Kings coach, who is a studio analyst for ESPN.

"I'm as serious about Barry as I am about Rick Paterson or Terry Murray," Esposito said. "That's the three."

Melrose, believed to make about $300,000 with ESPN, said he seriously wants to listen. He plans to speak at length Sunday with Esposito, who has been spurned once _ by former Buffalo Sabres coach Ted Nolan _ after firing Crisp on Sunday.

If Murray and Melrose back out, too _ or if Esposito opts against them for money or other reasons _ the job probably goes to Paterson.

The former Chicago Blackhawks forward apprenticed under Scotty Bowman and the late Bob Johnson in Pittsburgh before coaching Cleveland in the International Hockey League.

And though Paterson does not have the name value the other candidates do, Esposito said, that should not be held against him. Neither should his never being an NHL coach, Esposito said: "You have to start somewhere."

The new coach will face reversing the fortune of the 2-9-2 Lightning, off until a four-game road trip opens Wednesday at Anaheim.

"I'd give (Murray) or Paterson or Melrose a tremendous bonus for making the playoffs," Esposito said.

"I really think we would make a decision pretty soon, in the next week or two."

NOTES: Tough guy Troy Mallette, out with a herniated disc in his neck, is scheduled to see a specialist in Tampa next week and may travel with the team Tuesday to see Los Angeles-based specialist Dr. Robert Watkins, the doctor who performed surgery last year on goalie Daren Puppa. Mikael Renberg missed practice because he had his wisdom teeth extracted Thursday, and David Shaw was out with back spasms. The team practices at 10:30 this morning at the Ice Sports Forum.

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