And on a humid, December Friday afternoon the Barry Melrose Era came to a crashing end. The first year Lightning head coach was let go the day after the team squandered a 2 goal league against the defending champion Detroit Red Wings. Assistant coach Rick Tocchet has been named the interim coach. With several “big name” coaches seeking employment his tenure may be short
OK Hockey made the decision because, “the results were unexcitable the players have to understand that we need to be better”. Those were the words spoken by Brian Lawton according to the St Pete Times. Whether its trades or organizational announcements Lawton has been making a lot of statements in the press lately.
Sixteen games isn’t a long time to judge a head coach. Even though Melrose’s team was only victorious 5 times in those 16 games the quick hook is another sign that a sense of panic may be setting in with the ownership. A lackluster start to the season and below average performance from their offensive stars, both new and old, has led to many empty seats in the Ice Palace. Empty seats is one thing that this ownership group cannot afford.
Melrose, a controversial replacement for fiery John Tortorella, never seemed to fit in the TBA area. His detractors were numerous and seemed to have endless reasons why he shouldn’t be behind the bench. Whether it was his preferred hair style (slick backed mullet), his lack of recent coaching experience or the opinions he uttered as an analyst during the Bolts Stanley Cup run in 2003-04 the cantankerous commenting crowd never ceased their cry for his immediate termination. His recent fawning over the Detroit organization ruffled their precious feathers even more. Now, however, they can raise a toast to his inglorious demise and search the roster for another victim to unleash their written (and often misspelled) vitriol.
Don’t weep for Melrose. The deal he signed was for three years so he will at least get a paycheck for the foreseeable future as Lawton said they would honor it. In these trying times that’s not a bad thing. Along with Tortorella OK Hockey is now paying two gentlemen to not coach their team. As early as it is in the season there is still a good chance that they can add to that total.
The well coifed gentleman will undoubtedly appear on a television screen soon. Perhaps he could occupy a seat to the right of Tortorella as a fellow TSN studio analyst. I’m sure the two of them could trade amusing stories of their short tenures as the top commander in the OK Hockey Army.
Meanwhile, back in the self anointed Hockey Bay, USA Tocchet will inherit a team in shambles. Of their five wins only one of them comes against a team that has won more than half of its games (Buffalo). The offense is lethargic at best, showing energy only on rare even-strength occasions and unable to put a full 60 minutes of hard-nosed, aggressive play together on one night. Perhaps if one were to add up all the moments of high caliber play so far through this season it would equal a full game, but they have yet to be the best team on the ice in a nightly basis.
The revolving door on defense has been well documented and there is no need to go over it again. The only redeeming quality on this team has been the goaltending and that can’t last forever. Mike Smith has seen more rubber than a Goodyear salesman. He is facing an average of 36 shots per game. At that pace he would only need to play in 48 games to break Kevin Weeks team record of shots against of 1742 set during the glory years of the early 2000’s.
Until there is some sort of stability on the roster the team will continue to struggle. This isn’t a bad team made of up of unskilled players. The boys in Lightning blue have a tremendous amount of talent, however they seem to have no focus, no tenacity and no joy. Look at the bench - do you see any smiles? It deems there hasn’t been any humor reported in Tampa since the night in Toronto when they let Steven Stamkos skate onto the ice all by his lonesome.
So what comes first - winning or the joie de vie on the ice that leads to more winning? Watch Alex Ovcehkin when he scores or when one of his linemates scores. It’s like watching someone score for the first time. When Vincent or Marty score it seems to be celebrated more with a sense of relief and the impending doom of one watching over their shoulder waiting for the other shoe to drop. Until this team relaxes and starts playing with confidence things won’t change.
Oddly enough Melrose leaves the Lightning with the second best winning percentage as a head coach. His .438 winning percentage ranked only behind Torts (.549) and well ahead of Terry Crisp (.421), Steve Ludzik (.345), Jacques Demers (.293) and Rick Paterson (.000). So from a certain point of view OK Hockey fired the second best coach in the history of the Lightning after only 16 games - that’s hardly fair.