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Coach hunt could end at home

On the day he planned to speak with Barry Melrose and the agent for Terry Murray _ but spoke with neither _ Lightning general manager Phil Esposito dropped another hint that the successor to Terry Crisp might be on board already.

"This is too big of a decision to be doing it quickly," Esposito said after the Lightning practiced Sunday at the Ice Palace. "And I have to tell you: I am not unhappy with what I see."

The Lightning, 2-9-2 and on a nine-game winless streak at 0-8-1, is 0-2-0 since Esposito fired Crisp on Oct. 26 and promoted Rick Paterson from assistant coach.

And after four days of practice since Tampa Bay's last game, a 5-2 loss to Ottawa Wednesday night, Esposito seems to be sending signals that Paterson might be his man.

"I know it's only practice, but what I see in practice I like," Esposito said when asked about Paterson, the former Chicago Blackhawks center who was an assistant coach in Pittsburgh and coach of Cleveland in the International Hockey League. "Players are even coming up to me and saying, "Give it to Rick,' "Are you gonna give it to Rick?' and "Is the Rick the guy?' They all seem to like him."

Esposito said he still was considering Murray, the former Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals coach working as a pro scout for the Flyers, and Melrose, the former Los Angeles Kings coach working as a studio analyst for ESPN.

But late Sunday night _ speaking from Dallas, site of a general managers meeting today and Tuesday _ Esposito said he was unable to reach Melrose as planned ("I called him," he said, "and he wasn't even home"), and had not contacted Robin Burns, the agent for Murray.

Asked if he planned to talk with Burns today, Esposito had a one-word answer: "Maybe."

He did say he plans to talk to some of both candidates' former bosses today and Tuesday.

"I'm sure gonna ask (Flyers general manager) Bobby Clarke (about Murray). I'm sure gonna ask (former Capitals general manager) David Poile," Esposito said. "And I'm sure gonna ask the L.A. guys about Barry."

Murray said Sunday night he had not spoken with Burns over the weekend, but he indicated he still is interested in the position. Melrose, who could not be reached, has id he was intrigued by the possibility of coaching the Lightning. Paterson says he wants the job and is willing to wait as long as necessary for Esposito to make his decision.

And because Esposito said he intends to give Paterson more time as he tries to make up his mind, don't expect Murray or Melrose behind the bench when the Lightning plays Wednesday at Anaheim.

After that, who knows?

In the meantime, Esposito said, "Let's just let it play out.

"The only thing I can say is patience is a must here," he added. "We still feel we can change it and turn it around."

_ Staff writer Tom Jones contributed to this report.