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Lightning fire coach Barry Melrose; Rick Tocchet takes over on interim basis

In this Oct. 21, 2008 file photo, Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Barry Melrose watches from the bench. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Steve Nesius

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In this Oct. 21, 2008 file photo, Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Barry Melrose watches from the bench. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Steve Nesius

TAMPA, Fla. - Barry Melrose's return to the NHL as coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning lasted 16 games. Now the job belongs to assistant Rick Tocchet, who had been suspended from the league for his involvement in a sports betting ring.

Melrose was fired Friday less than five months after he left the television booth to coach a team that finished with the league's worst record last season.

"It's a disappointing day," general manager Brian Lawton said, adding that he was concerned with the direction of the team, which was not responding to the former television analyst who skipped practice one day this week after admonishing the team for poor play.

"Myself, certainly the players and the rest of our staff, we all have to take responsibility for this as well. It's a difficult job," Lawton said. "Ultimately, you have one person that's paying the price for a lack of deliverance on performance for a number of people, or a team in this case."

Melrose asked Tocchet to run practice Tuesday after he met with players in Sunrise, Fla., where the Lightning lost to the Florida Panthers the following night. Lawton said there was no one reason for the dismissal.

"He was not let go because of that," the general manager said, adding it was a culmination of things that had been building since the start of the season, and possibly before.

"For me, it's not about the wins and losses every night. ... It's certainly part of the equation, but it's not all of it," Lawton said. "It has to do with philosophically where we're going, where we're at today, where we're going tomorrow and where we're going to be in three months or a year."

Tocchet was promoted to interim head coach. He was sentenced to two years' probation in August 2007 after pleading guilty in an investigation into a sports betting ring. Tocchet said he never bet on NHL games.

Tocchet rejoined Phoenix's coaching staff in February 2008 after a two-year absence that included a suspension by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email to The Associated Press that the league is not concerned about Tocchet's promotion.

"Rick is still bound by the terms of his reinstatement," Daly said. "If he's qualified to be an assistant coach on those terms, in our view, he's just as qualified to be a head coach."

Lawton called Tocchet a "very straightforward individual" who is respected as a former player. He stressed there's no timetable for deciding if the interim coach is the long-term solution.

"Although we'd all like miracles ... that's not going to happen. Players are going to need some time to understand what he's trying to get at," Lawton said.

The Lightning have lost three straight games, dropping to fourth in the Southeast Division with a 5-7-4 record. Despite the presence of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and No. 1 draft pick Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay ranks last in goals in the NHL.

Melrose is the second NHL coach to be fired this season - the Chicago Blackhawks dismissed Denis Savard after four games.

"I think we're a higher scoring club than we've shown," Lawton said. "To be dead last in the National Hockey League is not something that I'm excited about. But more importantly, philosophically, it's not the direction I want to see our club go in."

Out of coaching for 13 years, Melrose was lured back to the bench by new Lightning owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie as a replacement for John Tortorella, who led Tampa Bay to its only Stanley Cup championship.

Melrose coached Los Angeles from 1992-95. 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 12 years at ESPN before taking over the Lightning.

At the time of his hiring, Melrose said his time in television enabled him to get a good read on what works 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 were the primary investors in a group that purchased the Lightning for US$206 million. The roster was overhauled during the summer, but the team got off to a slow start and has shown few signs of improvement.

Tocchet has been in the NHL for 25 years as a player and coach. He played 18 seasons with Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington and Phoenix and served as an assistant coach with Colorado, Phoenix and Tampa Bay.

"We think this is a great opportunity for him and we believe he's the type of coach who can take the team to the next level," Lawton said. "Our players have a great deal of respect for him."

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