November 15, 2008
If 16 games were long enough to hand out a death sentence to Barry Melrose, are they also a sufficient sample in order to judge Oren Koules, Len Barrie and GM Brian Lawton as architects of an imploding foundation?
The answer, even with yesterday's public relations embarrassment, is absolutely not.
The answer is that this incarnation of the Tampa Bay Lightning has received a second chance, from the boardroom to the bench. And sitting four points -- yes, four points -- out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, the hasty dismissal of Melrose may just save the season.
Columnist Gary Shelton of the St. Petersburg Times is one of those critics who can look at 16 games and see both a "premature" firing and a reason to crucify ownership:
Sixteen games. Sixteen games with a room full of players who barely know each other. Sixteen games with owners who have never owned. Sixteen games with a general manager who has never generally managed. Sixteen games for a coach who hadn't been behind a bench in 13 years.
You work 16 games, and what do you get? Evidently, a fresh pink slip and a severance check. This is stunning and ridiculous and premature. And perhaps most important, this is the biggest clue to date as to the impulsive nature of those who run the Lightning.
"The biggest clue to date?" You needed Melrose's firing to reveal their "impulsive nature?"
Did you miss Ryan Malone and Mark Recchi and Radim Vrbata and Gary Roberts and Dan Boyle and Andrej Meszaros and Lukas Krajicek and Marek Malik and Steve Eminger? Tampa Bay management has a trigger finger like sniper with Parkinson's.
The irony is that as one of their gambles has gone bust, they've made another gamble in replacing him. And it might just work.
Don't misread this as a pass for the Bolts' brain trust: The hiring of Melrose will go down as one of the most disastrous coaching moves in NHL history.
First, let's recall how we got here. The genesis of Melrose-to-Tampa was the new ownership's dissatisfaction with ex-coach John Tortorella and a heaping spoonful of nepotism. In this case, it was a guy named Mike Butters who linked coach with owners.
Butters, currently the GM of Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate, played for Melrose when The Mullet coached the Adirondack Red Wings. Stu Hackel of the New York Times picks up the narrative:
Now how does that bring Melrose to Tampa? Well, Butters is a longtime friend and business associate of Oren Koules, the principal guy in OK Hockey, the group buying the Lightning. The two are partners in the Helena Bighorns, a junior team currently playing in the Northern Pacific Hockey League, where they have won three Cascade Cup championships in four seasons (the first two as the Queen City Cutthroats).
They were also partners in producing the grindhouse blockbuster film "Saw," in which each had bit parts, and which probably provided the wealth for Koules to form OK Hockey (in which Butters might be one of the thus far unidentified partners). Koules, from Chicago, had a junior hockey career of his own in Western Canada before entering the world of finance as a trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, an experience that drew him into the film business.
A word from Butters to Koules on Melrose almost certainly got the ball rolling, if there wasn't already an understanding long ago that Melrose would be their guy.
At Melrose's introductory press conference, a story was shared about how a "mutual friend" brought Melrose, Barrie and Koules together, and how Barrie's 30-minute phone call with Melrose sold him on the new coach.
So it's important to remember that Koules and Barrie have fired someone relatively new to the inner circle, rather than a trusted friend and/or business partner like so many of their other hires. Perhaps that explains some of the haste in their decision to can him.
Too many pundits speaking about Melrose and the Lightning haven't seen the team enough to know how completely warranted this dismissal was. Yes, players play the game. Yes, management created this hodgepodge of underachieving veterans, hapless rookies and a carousel on defense. But it was Melrose's inept coaching and psychology that hampered this team.
The second and third lines of the Lightning, in their endless reconfigurations, played some of the most inane, uninspired hockey of any team in the League. Despite constant public outrages about lack of effort, Melrose couldn't motivate today's NHL player. He also couldn't manage today's NHL game: Look at the ice time for Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos; or look at the formless, anti-system the Lightning played in most games.
What were they? Puck possession? Balls-to-the-wall aggression in the offensive zone? Melrose was so enamored with the team's checking line at one point, it looked like they were playing Crash Line hockey.
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.
In speaking to some parties in the know, there was talk of a lack of structure. Well, Lawton said one of the key elements Tocchet will bring is more structure. And some others in the know spoke of the number of grey areas that were involved when it came to how things were explained and run. One even said to me that even under John Tortorella, things were very black and white (some might even suggest too black and white), and to me, that's pretty telling.
Maybe the players simply saw him as the goofy huckster from ESPN who once coached Wayne Gretzky. Maybe Melrose thought he'd enter the locker room with a pimp hand to go along with his suits. The bottom line is that the players weren't responding to Melrose.
No coach should have that many tirades about lack of effort this early in the season. No coach should literally take a day off from his team just 16 games into the season. You could see it in the Washington game this week: The Lightning weren't motivated in the first period in an electric atmosphere, thanks to Olaf Kolzig's homecoming. The coach has to own up to, or pay for, that.
But now it's on the players, as Damien Cristodero reports in the St. Pete Times:
Lawton said he would meet Friday night with a "leadership group" of players to explain the move and set standards. "It's not a light issue when someone loses their job," Lawton said. "I'm responsible. They're responsible. They need to know that and look in the mirror."
Lawton acknowledged that firing a coach as a remedy for the failure of a team is "unfair" and a "raw deal," and said, "I don't think this group of players will be absolved from blame."
"We can't kid ourselves that as players we are not as responsible for our record," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "With (Tocchet) and Walz, we're going to work hard and get back on the right track."
The Lightning still have a chance to become the post-Savard Chicago Blackhawks: The ineffective coach is sacrificed, and the players find their mojo.
If it doesn't work ... well, management does have that "impulsive nature," doesn't it? And despite Rick Tocchet's ascendency to interim head coach, there are a lot of veteran coaches still on the market who'd love a take a crack at this talented roster. The Lightning are already spending over $3 million this season on coaches that aren't coaching; what's a few more?
Just none that have been on ESPN in the last decade, please. That ship has sailed. And sunk.