TAMPA, Fla. – When the Tampa Bay Lightning called, Barry Melrose was eager to listen.
Out of coaching for 13 years, he missed the passion and competition of the NHL. Countless hours of watching games as a television analyst intensified his desire to return behind the bench, and it didn’t hurt that he’d be able to work with talent like Vincent Lecavalier and Steve Stamkos.
“They approached me. I couldn’t wait to say yes,” Melrose said Tuesday after the Lightning’s new owners made the league’s worst-kept secret official: the former Los Angeles Kings coach was the choice to replace John Tortorella. “Watching successful teams, and watching teams that work and watching teams that don’t work, it just reinforced what I believe in and how I coached, and the way we’re going to play here.
“You don’t win by accident. You don’t lose by accident. There are reasons certain teams win all the time, and there’s a reason certain teams lose all the time.”
Melrose estimates he watched about 90 per cent of Tampa Bay’s games on TV last season. What he saw was a team that lost its zest under the hard-driving Tortorella, who led the club to its only Stanley Cup title four years ago.
The Lightning not only missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002, they finished last in the NHL with a league-worst 31-42-9 record.
“I think what happened here is just a group that lost their passion in the second part of the season. That’s why you win,” Melrose said. “You out-work other teams, you out-want other teams. When you lose that fire and lose that passion, it’s very hard to compete in the NHL.”
Tortorella helped transform a perennial last-place team into a champion. But his demanding, in-your-face style wore on players, especially younger ones who new owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie believe can benefit by playing for Melrose.
“When you talk to people in the league, the talent is here,” Koules said, adding that he’s banking on Melrose being someone who can get everyone on the team “pulling in the same direction.”
Two of Melrose’s assistants will be Rick Tocchet and Wes Walz. The Lightning are pursuing a third.
A major priority next season will be improving defensively.
“I believe in effort. I believe in energy. I believe in speed. I believe in aggression. I believe in letting guys be creative, using their imagination,” Melrose said. “I give them a lot of freedom.
“All I ask in return is that they compete defensively. Most people love playing for me. The guys who don’t love playing for me usually don’t want being on your team anyway.”
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 the past 12 years at ESPN.
He said his time in television enabled him to get a good read on what works and doesn’t work in the NHL, as well as “a handle on the players that I would love to have in our organization when deals are made.”
Koules and Barrie, the primary investors in a group purchasing the Lightning for US$206 million, have vowed to be “shockingly aggressive” in free agency to upgrade the roster and surround No. 1 draft pick Stamkos with players who can help him be successful.
They intend to be hands-on owners, and Melrose said that’s OK.
“I’d much rather have people in charge who care, than people in charge who don’t care,” the coach said.
The decision to hire Melrose was the worst-kept secret in hockey. By the time Tortorella was dismissed June 3, it was a foregone conclusion the job was his.
Gretzky was asked about the expected return last weekend during the NHL draft in Ottawa.
“I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s a great opportunity for Barry. He’s a tremendous coach, and he’s a player’s coach,” Gretzky said.
“And just as important, he understands the media and understands the marketplace that he’s in, Tampa Bay. It’s not the same as being in a place like Montreal or Toronto. His experience of being in L.A. and dealing with that, this will be a real positive. He’ll do a tremendous job.”
Melrose is eager to prove he’s still got it.
“I’m not a bystander. I’ve never been a bystander in my life,” he said. “I hate to be a guy on the outside looking in. I want to be on the inside again.”