October 22, 2008
There's a certain blissful irony in the fact that no one outside of the arena could watch last night's Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers -- their first of the year, Coach Barry Melrose's first since the year "Waterworld" was released. A team that's been operating in the public eye for the last several months, and its first moment of glory wasn't even televised.
Which is a shame for Melrose, who hasn't had a bittersweet moment on cable since Steve Levy's bro-mance goodbye on ESPN.
"There's a lot of people hoping that Oren [Koules] and Lenny [Barrie] fail and there's a lot of people hoping that what they did over the summer proves unwise. So there are a lot of people watching Tampa Bay; some people are cheering for us and some are hoping we fail," Melrose said after the game.
Maybe being off TV was a good thing, as it wasn't the most telegenic effort for the Lightning: The team's systemic problems with underachieving forwards and inconsistent defense allowed the Thrashers to steal a point with a two-goal rally late in the third. Had it not been for a Bryan Little penalty in overtime that gave the Bolts power play a chance to win the game (as Vincent Lecavalier did), Barry could still be searching for win numero uno.
But the search is over, the monkey has been tossed off the back and Tampa Bay's players can grip those sticks a little less tightly. Still, it's worth asking:
Did Barry Melrose save his job last night?
I did a spot on FAN 590 last night in which host Alex Seixeiro asked about the Lightning. And I told him what we've written here: That whispers around NHL circles have labeled Melrose as behind the times in his approach and unprepared for the job. There's never really any elaboration, which is frustrating, because one comes away thinking that Melrose is plotting out power-play formations on cocktail napkins. And that's not the case. I think.
Alex asked me if I thought either the Philadelphia Flyers or the Tampa Bay Lightning was best equipped to turn things around this season. It sort of knocked me on my ass, not only because I began to realize my pick of the Flyers as division champions really, really isn't working out; but also because I was unaware that the Koules-Aid was shipped all the way up to Toronto.
If it was, Eric Duhatschek of the Globe & Mail hadn't received any when he asked if Melrose was on "thin ice" this week:
There are already rumblings about player unrest in Tampa, some of it directed towards coach Barry Melrose. The Lightning took a calculated risk by bringing Melrose out of the broadcast studio -- he was a popular ESPN analyst -- and installing him behind the bench after a 13-year absence from the coaching ranks. There was risk attached to the move -- the game has changed dramatically since Melrose's days behind the Los Angeles Kings' bench -- but the feeling was that there'd be a honeymoon of sorts because Melrose replaced a demanding coach in John Tortorella, who had probably come to the end of what he could reasonably accomplish in Tampa. But Melrose sat out Radim Vrbata, one of their key free-agent signings, the other night because of his lack of production. The youngest player on the team, Steve Stamkos, is playing limited minutes, as is the oldest player on the team, Gary Roberts. There is limited secondary scoring, which was an issue last year.
All of this is true, and then you factor another basic problem with Melrose this season: The constant psychological warfare. We've been hearing since Prague that the Lightning aren't playing aggressive enough, aren't asking for the puck and aren't making the necessary effort to succeed. Forget Vrbata, who finally tallied a point last night; Melrose was playing the Chris Gratton line more than he was the second scoring line because he wanted to send a message.
And it's still a problem, six games into the season. The end of last night's regulation saw Melrose extremely shorten his bench.
"It's the old saying, what comes first, success or confidence?" he told reporters last night. "The last couple of minutes not a lot of guys wanted the puck, so we gotta change that culture. Guys have to want the puck and have to be aggressive. And you have to battle when the game is on the line and that's why this could be a very pivotal game for us."
Back to Eric Duhatschek. He said last night's tilt against the Thrashers was an "eminently winnable game," and that a loss could have meant the end for Melrose. When you look at the timing of things, that may not have been all that outlandish a thought: Is there a more perfect moment to dull what would surely be a rabid response to Melrose's removal from fans and media than to fire him before Game 1 of a Tampa Bay Rays' World Series?
This is all unfettered speculation and a moot point, because Melrose won. In fact, the Lightning now have as many points in six games as the Dallas Stars and the Calgary Flames do. They have more points than six other teams in the NHL. Perhaps this is why the threat level on the Barry Melrose Coach-O-Meter 3000 has been downgraded to "Stamkos" from "Richards" ... even if "Stamkos" wasn't even a setting on the meter yesterday.
But just for chuckles: Would Melrose have been fired after a loss yesterday?
Nah. Like we've said before: Outside of a complete disaster, Melrose is safe. Because he's the embodiment of the heretical management approach by Oren Koules and Len Barrie, and terminating him would be unavoidably symbolic of its initial failure.
But more than that, Melrose is their friend. And if the Lightning are going to prove anything this season, it's that nepotism can win in the NHL. Damien Cristodero of Lightning Strikes explains:
A last bit of intrigue concerns the acquisition of wing Matt Pettinger, an investor in owner Len Barrie's Bear Mountain resort in Victoria, British Columbia. Barrie said Pettinger is a "very minor" investor and their relationship had "zero" to do with acquiring him.
Vice president of hockey operations, Brian Lawton, said Barrie told him, "I've known him for X number of years but you have to go with what our scouts and say and what our management says. Yes he does like him and he was very forthright about that. But it's not at a point where he is making that decision for the hockey club."
Wing Gary Roberts and special assistant Mike Vernon also are investors. Asked about making hockey decisions based on his business connectuions, Barrie joked, "I wish it could be because we'd have a Hall of Fame team."