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Barry Melrose's excuse stinks

Were you shocked when Barry Melrose, the never-should-have-been-hired coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, was fired last Friday after only 16 games?

I wasn't and you shouldn't have been, either.

Melrose wasn't any more qualified to be behind a bench in the NHL today than he was way back in 1993 when his Los Angeles Kings couldn't find away to rebound from a simple illegal stick penalty during the Stanley Cup Final against the Montreal Canadiens.

For starters, any coach who knew what he was doing wouldn't have had a player, especially a player like Marty McSorley, on the ice with a crooked stick late in a game his team was leading by a goal on the cusp of going up 2-0 in the series . . . on the road no less.

Sure, it was a devastating penalty, and Melrose and Co. left Montreal with the series tied 1-1. But they still had Wayne Gretzky in their lineup (and, some would argue, actually running the team along with assistant coach Cap Rader). The Kings were then easily beaten for the silverware because Melrose couldn't refocus them after McSorley's miscue, and couldn't find a way to shut off a near non-existent Montreal offense long enough to solve goaltender Patrick Roy more than six times in the final three games combined.

So I don't buy Melrose's excuse that Tampa's players ran him off because he was too tough on them. The core leadership of the Lightning, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, know from tough coaching. The two forwards grew into star status under uber-demanding John Tortorella. Though it took time and a painful learning process; they respected Tortorella for the effort. Tortorella was (and will be again) about as demanding as any coach this side of Scott Bowman, but his players realized that he was committed not only to winning, but making them as good as they could possibly be, and as well or better prepared as any team on a game-in, game-out basis.

To be sure, the team that Lecavalier and St. Louis are now a part of is a far cry from the one that won the Stanley Cup in 2004, given all the changes from ownership on down. But to claim, as Melrose did recently on the CBC Network in Canada, that the team scuttled his best efforts because he was two tough on them is simply another in a never-ending series of (un)reality TV shows. Sixteen games usually isn't enough time for ownership to make a decision on a coach, but usually 16 games aren't nearly enough to get a player march going up the backstairs to ownership or management. Not even if Hannibal Lecter is behind the bench chewing their ears off during those 16 games.

Melrose got fired because he didn't know what he was doing.

He might think it was because his players didn't like that he publically chastised them after the first two games of the season (in Europe no less) or that he resorted to his celebrated cold-shoulder approach when he walked out of the locker room and left them to practice on their own the day before a game just prior to his being dismissed, but that's hardly the case.

He got fired because he didn't do game-prep well, manage his players and bench effectively, and was regularly outcoached by opponents, many of whom knew what they were doing behind the bench and took advantage of the fact that Melrose did not have a clue. That's harsh criticism, but it's what the people who watched the Lightning on a regular basis saw on a nightly basis.

There was a perception, maybe even a plan, that with Melrose being out of touch with the game for so long, hiring Rick Tocchet as his assistant would allow Tampa's neophyte hockey department to smooth over the problem, but it didn't happen. Tocchet, currently serving as interim coach, knows his way around a hockey rink, and though he was away on suspension for nearly two years -- and is still on federal probation for his role in a nationwide gambling ring -- he does know enough about the game to make a contribution.

Still, having a knowledgable assistant works only if the head coach allows it to happen, and word around Tampa Bay was that Melrose was going to coach his way. That was the problem. His way has gone the way of the Dodo bird, compassionate conservatism and hockey games on ESPN.

There are systems in the NHL today that Melrose didn't appreciate (or, some would argue, even know about) when he was an analyst on TV. You can cover for that with a never-ending speech about the need for "taking the other guy out" or "dumping the puck in and going hard to the boards to get it" but that only plays to the knuckle-draggers watching with the remote in one hand and a bag of Cheetos in the other. Making that kind of system work in today's NHL --against coaches who are actually well-trained and experienced professionals in their chosen field -- has a success rate on a par with the people who brought you the Katrina Relief Effort, the Mission Accomplished banner, and Boots DelBiaggio.

If there's any truth to be told in this sorry tale of ineptitude, it likely came from the carefully chosen words of team co-owner Oren Koules, who has already made his share of mistakes, but appears to have had the good sense to talk to some hockey people about what was going on under his watch.

"In talking to many players and coaches and general managers, most feel we have a very good team," Koules told the St. Petersburg Times. "In our opinion, we weren't improving at all, and the players weren't responding to Barry."

To improve a team -- especially a team put together by "thinking outside the box" -- you need, in addition to patience, a coach who is part teacher, part taskmaster, part preacher with a healthy dose of success attached to his name. The idea should be to have someone who has enough of a reputation to convince all the bright new faces and at least a line's worth of the craggy old ones that there is one person in the room who knows what he's doing.

Melrose not only didn't do that, he couldn't. Put the blame where you want; on Melrose for taking the job or on ownership for offering it, but either way this is something that never should have happened and it produced the predictable results. For Melrose to spin it any other way, well, it might play on TV, but in the real world of hockey 2008-09, the game requires more than a mullet and an Xbox.

Someone in Tampa should have known that.

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