Darren Eliot
Wednesday June 25th, 2008

Tuesday's announcement of Barry Melrose as the new head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning was hardly news. Throughout the playoffs, the word was that once the league approved the team's incoming ownership -- a group that included friend Oren Koules -- Melrose would succeed the recently released John Tortorella as the Bolts' bench boss.

No, pegging the 12-year hockey analyst as the hire was easy. The hard part is projecting his impact in Tampa and what it might mean given the overall coaching picture in the Southeast Division. Let's review, shall we:

Tampa Bay Lightning: In with Melrose, who rose to prominence as the coach of the L.A. Kings' team that lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1993 Stanley Cup Final. Wayne Gretzky was the focal point of that team, but only slightly more so than its Billy Ray Cyrus-mullet coiffed coach. Melrose proved to be a personality -- a players coach who seemed to enjoy the moment. He parlayed that persona and hairstyle into a long and successful TV gig on ESPN, becoming more recognizable than most NHL players.

How does that translate now? Time will only tell, but let's just say that Melrose's locker room should be a lot looser than the one he inherited from the Tortorella regime. With top pick Steve Stamkos coming in and Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Dan Boyle all still in place from the 2004 Stanley Cup team, a different approach is probably well-timed. If Melrose can rekindle some of the unbridled passion from that nucleus while at the same time getting them to take the next step as hands-on leaders, his return to coaching might be one of the best stories of the season.

Washington Capitals: Of course, the best coaching story of the recently-conluded season came courtesy of the Caps. They promoted Bruce Boudreau from the AHL in November with the team in last place. All he did with the opportunity -- one he'd waited a lifetime of minor league bus trips for -- was get the Caps to the top of the division and into the playoffs, thus garnering Coach-of-the-Year honors. It was a fabulous story, as Boudreau broke down barriers with his disarming honesty.

Atlanta Thrashers: Walking down a similar path, the Thrashers hired John Anderson from their AHL affiliate. He, like Boudreau, has waited an eternity to get a chance to coach at the NHL level. He's coming off yet another championship -- his fifth in 13 years -- and more than just having similar histories, Boudreau and Anderson are longtime friends. They've known each other since they were teenagers playing junior hockey and roomed together as pros while with the Maple Leafs. They speak at least every other day and now they'll face each other six times as divisional rivals.

Florida Panthers: Not to be outdone, the Panthers hired Pete DeBoer for his first crack at the NHL. He too served a long apprenticeship, winning 536 games in major junior hockey, most recently at the helm of the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, and he's one of only five OHL coaches ever to reach the 500-win mark. He replaces Jacques Martin, who relinquished his coaching duties while retaining his GM responsibilities and, as such, hired DeBoer. Martin said he was looking to DeBoer's fiery approach to inspire his young core group that seems on the precipice of delivering on projected promise.

That makes Peter Laviolette of the Carolina Hurricanes the only coach in the Southeast who led training camp last year and is in place to do so again in 2008. His status, though, was scrutinized due to the team's failiure to make the playoffs for the second consecutive campaign after their Cup triumph of 2006.

That's a lot of tumult behind the bench -- never mind all of it happening in one division. And beginning with Boudreau, the personalities and stories are unique and interesting.

In that sense, Barry Melrose will fit right in.

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