TAMPA, Fla. – John Tortorella was fired Tuesday as coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, four years after leading the team to its only Stanley Cup title. He had one season remaining on his contract.
The Lightning were 239-222-36-38 and made the playoffs four times in 6 1/2 seasons under Tortorella, who took over a perennial last-place team in January 2001 and – along with stars Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards – helped transform it into a championship contender in three years.
“He did something I think is very, very difficult for anyone to do, but certainly difficult for a coach to do. That’s change the culture,” general manager Jay Feaster said during a news conference.
“This was a country club, a retirement home. It was a place players came to retire, they just forgot to tell us they were doing it,” Feaster added. “John came in and changed the culture, changed the way we do business, and the attitude. And in so doing, he raised expectations.”
The firing came as no surprise. There has already been speculation about television analyst and former Los Angeles Kings coach Barry Melrose possibly replacing Tortorella.
Melrose is a friend of Hollywood producer Oren Koules, who is leading a group that is on the verge of buying the Lightning.
Feaster said the move would have been necessary, even if the team were not being sold or if Tampa Bay’s string of four consecutive post-season appearances had not ended with a 31-42-9 finish this year.
Tortorella himself suggested to the GM at the end of the season that a change might be good for the team. The coach later recanted and said he’d like to stay in his job and try to get the team back to the playoffs.
“It’s a difficult decision, but a decision that isn’t driven by where we were but where we feel we need to go,” Feaster said.
There was a sense this season that Tortorella’s message was no longer getting through to players in the locker room, however Feaster rejected the notion that the fiery coach lost the team.
“I don’t think that it was a matter of losing the locker room. Sometimes the message, especially if communicated by the same person, is not received maybe the way it was years ago,” the GM said, adding that there also were times this season when he and Tortorella didn’t see eye-to-eye on things.
Feaster expects the sale of the Lightning to the group led by Koules to receive NHL approval on June 18.
Despite rumours about Melrose being a lock to replace Tortorella, Feaster said he has no knowledge of a deal. He added he doesn’t expect to have conversations with Koules about the hiring process until just before or after the June 21 draft in Ottawa.
“I’ve asked that question of Oren, and I’ve been told twice that there is no deal in place,” Feaster said of reports linking Melrose to the job.
“I have some strong ideas about who I’d like to see coach, and what kind of coach I like, what kind of coach I think we need here. And I’d like to share those with the new ownership group.”
At least one team already has requested permission to talk to Tortorella, and Feaster expects others also will be interested in hiring the most successful coach in Tampa Bay’s history.
“There’s no doubt that John will land on his feet,” the GM said, “and land on his feet very quickly.”