Tampa made a mess of Melrose situation

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It took just 16 games for Tampa Bay general manager Brian Lawton to decide that he'd seen enough of Barry Melrose as the Lightning's head coach.

Sixteen games? I know it's hardly a shocking occurrence when any NHL head coach gets fired, but few people could have seen the Melrose dismissal coming. The Lightning are already paying $1.3 million to former head coach John Tortorella this year, and now they'll also owe Melrose $2 million over the next three seasons.

The hiring of Melrose seemed like a public relations move to begin with and, ironically, the firing has turned into a PR nightmare for the new ownership group led by Len Barrie and Oren Koules.

The first thing the owners did wrong was introduce Melrose as their head coach before Lawton took over the team's GM responsibilities. Barrie and Koules took control of the franchise on June 23 and announced Melrose as the head coach the following day. Former GM Jay Feaster then resigned on July 11, and Lawton immediately took over his new role as well as the title of executive vice president.

Barry Melrose's stint as Tampa Bay head coach was short-lived.
The owners had to know Feaster was on his way out, why not wait a few weeks to see if Lawton was keen on hiring Melrose or not? The only reason I can think of is that Barrie and Koules wanted to make a big splash and hiring Melrose, who was very popular in his previous job as an NHL analyst for ESPN, allowed the Lightning to grab some headlines. The problem is that firing such a big name this early into a three-year contract will also get the club attention, but not the kind the team is after.

Now, I wasn't a fan of the hiring in the first place considering how much the game has changed since Melrose last was a head coach with Los Angeles in the mid-1990s, but it's hard to blame him for the Lightning's 5-7-4 start to the season.

The Bolts have been on a downhill trajectory since winning the franchise's first and only Stanley Cup in 2004, and, despite numerous personnel changes over the summer, they weren't picked by many to make the playoffs this year.

It's hard not to have sympathy for Melrose in this situation. The guy waited over 13 years to make his return to an NHL bench and only had about 20 percent of a regular season to prove he still had what it took to lead a team.

Now, I don't deny Lawton's assertion that he "philosophically" disagreed with Melrose's approach to coaching, but it's hard to sell that angle when you've barely let the guy get his feet wet in his new job.

The Lightning made matters worse by replacing Melrose with associate coach Rick Tocchet, who last garnered headlines for his involvement in a massive betting ring based in southern New Jersey.

Tocchet is taking over the team on an interim basis for the time being and will be an NHL head coach for the first time. This is a guy who spent two years in a league-imposed exile for making terrible decisions off the ice, and now he's tabbed with the task of getting this floundering franchise back on track? Again, a tough sell.

Obviously, Lawton never wanted Melrose as his head coach, but he should've at least given him a full season to try his hand at leading the Lightning, who are, after all, in a rebuilding process.

Tocchet may do better than Melrose with this team, but he'll also have more time to prove himself.

A rash decision such as this one could have long-lasting effects for a franchise. After all, if you were a free agent looking for a new team, it would be hard not to be hesitant about joining a club that can anoint Melrose as the new face of the organization over the summer, only to fire him less than two months into his first season.

The decision to hire Melrose may have been a poor decision, but firing him after such a brief tenure was much worse.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo
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