Tocchet to take over as interim coach after Melrose gets fired

The Tampa Bay Lightning fired Barry Melrose after just 16 games in his return behind the bench, and associate coach Rick Tocchet will take over as interim head coach.

The Lightning, who made several key offseason acquisitions and got heralded Steve Stamkos as the top pick in the 2008 draft, announced the move Friday afternoon.

"This was a tough decision to make," general manager Brian Lawton said. "Barry is a good man and we have a great deal of respect for him. We wish him nothing but success. However, the results were unacceptable and the players have to understand that we need to be better. Hopefully this change helps push them.

"Myself, certainly the players and the rest of our staff, we all have to take responsibility for this as well. It's a difficult job," Lawton said. "Ultimately, you have one person that's paying the price for a lack of deliverance on performance for a number of people, or a team in this case."

The Lightning entered the season with high expectations, but find themselves 4-5-1 the past 10 games, including three straight losses. In the offseason, they had signed veterans
Mark Recchi, Ryan Malone, Radim Vrbata, Olaf Kolzig, Adam Hall, Wyatt Smith, Gary Roberts and Vinny Prospal to help along a younger group with considerable potential.

The team has struggled despite the presence of All-Star center Vincent Lecavalier -- the club's career scoring leader who signed an 11-year, $85 million contract extension in July and was named captain in September -- and Martin St. Louis, who has a team-high 12 points.

Out of coaching for 13 years, Melrose was lured back to the bench by new Lightning owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie as a replacement for John Tortorella, who led Tampa Bay to its only Stanley Cup championship.

Melrose coached Los Angeles from 1992 to '95. In his first season, he helped the Wayne Gretzky-led Kings to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to the Montreal Canadiens. He spent 12 years at ESPN before taking over the Lightning.

Melrose is the second NHL coach to be fired this season -- the Chicago Blackhawks dismissed Denis Savard after four games.

Perhaps Tuesday's events were an omen for Friday's result. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Melrose held a meeting with the players, then left and had Tocchet run practice.

According to the Times, Melrose said the meeting was "an airing from my point of view," after the Lightning had had terrible starts in two games.

"It wasn't a meeting to embarrass people," Melrose said Wednesday, according to the Times. "It was a meeting [to say], 'This is where I see us after 14 games.' These are the guys I think are buying into what I'm selling. These are the guys who have got to buy into what I'm selling."

As for leaving the practice in the hands of Tocchet, Melrose called it a way to give the players "a break."

"Sometimes guys get tired of hearing him and he gets tired of hearing them," Tocchet said, according to the Times. "Every coach does that. You need a break, have to get away from the team for a second. I honestly don't think it's that big a deal. It really isn't."

"He was not let go because [he let Tocchet run practice]," the general manager said, adding it was a culmination of things that had been building since the start of the season, and possibly before.

"For me, it's not about the wins and losses every night. ... It's certainly part of the equation, but it's not all of it," Lawton said. "It has to do with philosophically where we're going, where we're at today, where we're going tomorrow and where we're going to be in three months or a year."

Tocchet, 44, played 18 seasons in the NHL, retiring in 2002. He was an assistant coach with the Colorado Avalanche for a year and a half, then served as an assistant under Wayne Gretzky with the Phoenix Coyotes starting in 2005.

Tocchet's coaching career was interrupted by his involvement in a gambling investigation. He rejoined Phoenix's coaching staff in February 2008 after a two-year absence that included a suspension by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that the league is not concerned about Tocchet's promotion.

"Rick is still bound by the terms of his reinstatement," Daly said. "If he's qualified to be an assistant coach on those terms, in our view, he's just as qualified to be a head coach."

Lawton called Tocchet a "very straightforward individual" who is respected as a former player. He stressed there's no timetable for deciding if the interim coach is the long-term solution.

"Although we'd all like miracles ... that's not going to happen. Players are going to need some time to understand what he's trying to get at," Lawton said.

"I think we're a higher scoring club than we've shown. To be dead last in the National Hockey League is not something that I'm excited about. But more importantly, philosophically, it's not the direction I want to see our club go in."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.