Commentary

Melrose experiment fails miserably in Tampa Bay

Updated: November 15, 2008, 3:51 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

"Most people think it's going to be one of two things. It's going to be a roaring success or it's going to be a bomb."
-- Tampa Bay Lightning owner Oren Koules to ESPN.com on the day Barry Melrose was introduced as head coach June 24.

"Sorry. It's been a bad day. A very bad day."
-- Koules late Friday in explaining why he couldn't talk.

Late Friday afternoon the answer to Oren Koules' rhetorical questionnaire was in: Kaboom.

Just 16 games into his comeback as an NHL head coach, Barry Melrose was gone, unceremoniously ushered out of the Florida sun after watching his team stagger to a 5-7-4 record.

[+] EnlargeBarry Melrose
Tomas Hudcovic/Getty ImagesBarry Melrose's return after 13 years away from the bench lasted only 16 games.
The hiring of Melrose to a lucrative three-year deal after being absent from the coaching game since late in the 1994-95 season was a curious experiment that had been greeted with sly grins and muffled whispers of derision from the outset.

And so when GM Brian Lawton lowered the boom just 16 games into the 2008-09 campaign, there was nary a ripple of surprise. The script that many had predicted this team would follow had merely been followed to perfection.

One Lightning player told ESPN.com Friday night that Melrose was incredibly easygoing and personable. But he did not come to camp with a plan that was going to help a team that had undergone a dramatic overhaul of personnel in the offseason.

It was, the player said, like shinny hockey with a few fights thrown in for good measure.

There was no system. No plan. At least not one that was discernible, he said.

Here's the rub, though.

If this was embarrassing -- and it should be to everyone from ownership on down -- that embarrassment isn't going away anytime soon because Barry Melrose didn't drag this team down to where it is. No, he's had lots of help.

The Lightning were supposed to play a tough, in-your-face style of hockey that would produce offense off the forecheck. Yet physical players like Nick Tarnasky, David Koci and Shane O'Brien were dealt or waived.

When Melrose packed up his trademark cigars and mullet, the Lightning boasted an offense that ranks dead last in the NHL.

Their power play is 21st in spite of icing talent like Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Vaclav Prospal, top pick Steven Stamkos and Ryan Malone.

A player told ESPN.com one of the issues is commitment. Some players don't seem ready to compete. They don't block shots. They don't respond when a teammate fights. The dressing room is spooky quiet.

There has been a constant ripple of discontent both internally and externally over ice time.

Captain Vincent Lecavalier hasn't been happy with his ice time. There was criticism of the ice time awarded Stamkos, who has struggled with just four points in 16 games. He's also minus-7. His ice time has varied from a low of 6:05 to a high of 14:53.

Defensively the Lightning allow more shots per game than any team in the NHL. If not for the mostly spectacular goaltending of Mike Smith and Olaf Kolzig, the Lightning's record might be worse and perhaps the coaching change would have been made earlier.

This lack of commitment or focus has often manifested itself in a dizzying parade of on-ice brain cramps.

Take Thursday night. After looking dreadful in a loss earlier in the week to Florida, the Lightning jumped out to a 2-0 lead against the defending Stanley Cup champs from Detroit. After the Red Wings made it 2-1, the Lightning took three minor penalties in the last 25 seconds of the second period. Not surprisingly, the Red Wings scored two power play goals in the first 2:30 of the third and went on to win 4-3.

Whether it's lack of focus or lack of scheme or a combination, it's not surprising given the turnstile that has served as the Lightning's dressing-room door.

Eleven different defensemen have taken the ice for the Lightning this season. Up front Adam Hall, Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi, Radim Vrbata, Malone and Stamkos all joined the group from elsewhere.

GM Lawton said Friday he didn't like the direction the team was going, but this team has made so many changes it's reminiscent of a compass in a magnetic field.

It's like baking a cake. You put in all your ingredients and mix them up and put the cake in the oven, but if you keep checking every five minutes it never ends up looking much like a cake.

This is the Lightning.

Speaking of too many cooks in the kitchen, there have, of course, been rumors of excessive interference from ownership and management. One player told ESPN.com that stories about owner Len Barrie diagramming special-teams plays aren't true, and Koules went on the record denying it last month. Of course, ownership and management also denied emphatically that there were any changes afoot in the coaching staff.

Another source described how an on-ice practice session was canceled and replaced by an off-ice workout after a call from a player to ownership suggesting the move over Melrose's wishes.

Lawton said Friday that interim head coach Rick Tocchet will have the same autonomy as Melrose, but the reality of that autonomy had better be different if the team wants to avoid further embarrassment.

Will Tocchet have the latitude to bench a player like Vrbata, signed to a three-year deal worth $9 million in the offseason but who has yet to score a goal? Not that this drought should have come as a surprise to anyone given that Vrbata went the final 22 games of last season without a goal in Phoenix.

Will Tocchet be able to use Stamkos -- or not use him -- as he sees fit, even if he is the future of the franchise?

In Bratislava, Slovakia, prior to the Lightning's season opener in Prague, Barrie told ESPN.com he felt comfortable with Melrose because he'd surrounded himself with top assistants, especially Tocchet.

Barrie said at the time he felt Tocchet was ready to take on head-coaching duties. And maybe that was the plan -- build a support network that could easily morph into a new head-coaching staff.

Whether it was or not it is now the reality.

The Lightning won't hit the quarter mark of this season for another week or so. A brief view of recent history suggests it's not too late for them to turn things around.

A year ago the Washington Capitals were mired in last place in the Eastern Conference at Thanksgiving when they fired head coach Glen Hanlon and installed Bruce Boudreau. The Caps, of course, went on to win the Southeast Division and Boudreau was named coach of the year.

The problems that afflicted the Capitals, however, pale in comparison to what seems to afflict the Lightning. Maybe that's just time altering perceptions, but one thing is undeniable: The Lightning will play Sunday in Carolina and then at home against Florida Tuesday. Two division games. Two victories will put the Lightning back in the thick of things and help distance them from this ugly sideshow.

Two losses will reinforce what already seems apparent, that this bomb wasn't detonated only by Barry Melrose.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.