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Melrose, Lightning take a big chance

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's been over 13 years since Barry Melrose and his trademark mullet hairstyle have been spotted behind an NHL bench. So why, after all, this time has he decided to make a return to coaching?

Melrose was introduced as the new head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, giving him his first non-television job since he left the Los Angeles Kings following the 1994-95 season.

The reason for Melrose's desire to get back into coaching isn't really complicated. We see it happen all the time in the NFL and the other major professional sports, where a TV commentator leaves behind the makeup artists and the studio for a chance to get back into serious competition. The track record for these types of coaching comebacks is poor, and the chances of success seem less and less with each year that passes between jobs.

The problem is that Melrose is better known now as a hockey analyst than he ever was as the coach of Wayne Gretzky's Kings. That's partially because it's been such a long time since he coached, but also because he was better at being a TV commentator than he was at coaching.

Barry Melrose has been away from coaching for over 13 years.
Melrose's career as a head coach in Los Angeles didn't last very long, in fact he was behind the bench for just 209 regular-season games in three seasons with the Kings. His first year was a big success, as Melrose and the Kings made it all the way to the 1993 Stanley Cup finals before being ousted in five games by the Montreal Canadiens.

Outside of his profile as an NHL analyst for ESPN, Melrose is best known for that playoff run in the spring of 1993. Gretzky of course garnered most of the attention that postseason, but Melrose clearly displayed the type of charisma that would eventually make him a great fit for television.

The problem is that Melrose's Kings did very little to follow up the success of 1993. Los Angeles missed the playoffs in each of the next two seasons, and Melrose ultimately left after the 1994-95 campaign with a career losing record in the NHL, posting a 79-101-29 mark.

The magic that once led the Kings to the finals in Melrose's debut season as an NHL coach was gone in just three years time, and the Kings decided to make a coaching change 41 games into the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season.

So the burning question isn't really why Melrose decided to make a return to coaching after all these years, but rather why the Lightning would want him now.

One of the main reasons is that Melrose apparently is more of a players' coach than the recently fired John Tortorella, who led the Lightning to their only Stanley Cup title in 2004. But to say that Melrose is friendlier than Tortorella isn't saying much since Torts, who infamously battled with some of his star players in Tampa, is basically his generation's answer to Mike Keenan.

Melrose will most likely get along with his star players better than Tortorella did. That includes Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier, who is close to signing what is being reported as a nine-year deal, a contract that could keep him in Tampa for the remainder of his career.

Also, by hiring Melrose, the Lightning are bucking the latest trend in the NHL which is hiring coaches directly out of the AHL or even from a Canadian junior team. The idea is that these coaches can better relate to younger players and that they can adapt easier to the faster pace of the modern NHL game. For example, this was the strategy employed by the Florida Panthers when they recently hired Peter DeBoer out of the OHL.

Melrose coached teams in Los Angeles that were full of veterans like Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Luc Robitaille and Marty McSorley. In Tampa, he will have a roster consisting largely of experienced players at the forward positions, but the team gets considerably younger on defense and in goal. Melrose was a defenseman during his NHL playing days and maybe that experience will help him guide Tampa Bay's blueliners in the right direction.

Ultimately, taking on this new job is a not much of a risk for Melrose as it is a huge leap of faith for Lightning general manager Jay Feaster, because the former always has a TV job waiting for him. Feaster, who helped build the 2004 championship team, hasn't experienced much success since winning the Cup, as the Lightning were knocked out in the first round of the postseason in both 2006 and '07 and failed to make the playoffs this past year.

The lack of success in Tampa since the championship has placed the spotlight on Feaster, and that could increase since the Lightning has been handed over to a new ownership group that wasn't around for the hiring of Feaster. The new owners are also not likely to give Feaster the benefit of the doubt, since they want a new title of their own.

Still, it's not 100-percent clear if the idea to hire Melrose was Feaster's idea or if it was the ownership group that pushed the agenda. If the latter scenario is true than Feaster's power has already been undermined, and that wouldn't bode well for his future with the club.

The bottom line is the Lightning went out and hired a coach with a high profile and hopefully, for their sake, they did it for reasons other than to appease fans in Tampa who are clamoring for another championship after reveling in their first Cup a few years ago.

But, while hiring a highly recognizable coach could help calm the fans down it also will place even more pressure on Melrose to succeed, and for him to make big strides quickly. After all, the feeling around the league is that the Lightning have enough talent to at least make the playoffs, and with a few moves they could even return to Cup-contender status.

The hiring is certainly an interesting development, but in the long run the folks who gave Melrose his job will only be interested in winning. Barry's lengthy layoff from coaching and mediocre record as an NHL head coach have many critics scratching their heads at the Lightning's decision, but only time will tell if Tampa made the right move.

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Dan Di Sciullo
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