Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Will Bolts' moves be a 'success' or a 'bomb'? Time will tell
By Scott Burnside
We had been thinking long and hard about how to begin our discussion of the new Tampa Bay Lightning ownership group long before Barry Melrose and his world-famous mullet were cryogenically unfrozen and formally installed as coach of the Bolts.
We thought we'd start with some comments from other NHL general managers, coaches, scouts and observers, but then realized almost all of those comments were actionable, not to mention downright nasty.
But Lightning part-owner Oren Koules solved the problem himself.
In an interview with ESPN.com on Tuesday, the Hollywood slasher movie mogul said: "Most people think it's going to be one of two things. It's going to be a roaring success or it's going to be a bomb."
But Koules promised the Bolts will never be accused of playing it safe or being boring.
"We're going to go for it," he said.
If the NHL had more owners like that, and fewer under investigation, the league would be a much more happening place.
You talk to Koules and Melrose, and it's hard not to feel their excitement, the belief that they're going to make something happen in Tampa. But all new owners and coaches exude that kind of nervous energy. The reality is, this is a team that four short years ago won a Stanley Cup and was a shining example of how hockey can captivate and unify a community regardless of whether that community has outdoor rinks.
Now, after a lockout, two straight first-round playoff exits and a last-place finish in 2007-08, this is a team that suddenly finds itself sitting uncomfortably between a curiosity and carnival sideshow.
If there are reasons for optimism, it's that principal owners Koules and former junior hockey sensation Len Barrie are poised to do the single most important thing they could do with their new franchise, and that's sign captain and franchise player Vincent Lecavalier to a long-term deal.
That deal will be announced shortly after July 1, and it's absolutely crucial to the new ownership group's credibility in a marketplace that's already beginning to forget what it is like to win.
"We probably wouldn't have bought the team if we didn't think we could do that," Koules said.
Lecavalier could have become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2008-09 season; and if he decided he'd had enough of whatever was going on in Tampa, either pre- or post-ownership change, it would have meant a long season of distraction with pressure on Koules and Barrie to trade Lecavalier before he walked away for free.
It's the kind of thing that could have destroyed the franchise, or at least put it in a longer period of dormancy.
Those worries are now moot, and that's a good thing for Tampa fans and Steven Stamkos, the No. 1 pick in last week's draft who stands to learn a great deal from the classy Lecavalier.
"We look at him like Stevie Y," Koules said of Lecavalier, referencing legendary Detroit captain Steve Yzerman, who moved seamlessly from Hall of Fame-bound player to the front office in Detroit.
Koules and Barrie told reporters Monday they weren't going to be playing it cautious; they were going to go out and bring in free agents and return this team to the track of success that made Tampa a thriving hockey market.
If they are successful on that end -- landing a top-six forward to play with Stamkos and a top-four defenseman -- the Bolts may not be in as much trouble as many believe.
But a large part of that equation now rests on the head of the man with the most famous mullet this side of Ryan Smyth.
Melrose hasn't stood behind an NHL bench since the 1994-95 season. The last time he took an NHL team to training camp was 14 years ago. How long is that in coach years? Well, let's put it this way: Stamkos was 4 years old when Melrose last started an NHL season behind the bench.
|Barry Melrose, left, and Lightning owners Len Barrie, center, and Oren Koules are promising to bring excitement back to Tampa Bay hockey.|
We're not blaming Melrose for taking the gig. Who wouldn't want to earn $2 million a year for three years? But Melrose has coached 216 NHL regular-season games. His overall record is 79-101-29. His Los Angeles Kings advanced to the 1993 Stanley Cup finals by virtue of a star-studded lineup that included Wayne Gretzky and Koules' L.A. friend, Luc Robitaille.
But Koules points out that few people have seen as much hockey as Melrose over the past 14 years. "It's not as off the wall in hockey circles as you think," Koules said.
Since the rumors of Melrose's return started to percolate early in the playoffs, there has been no shortage of dismay or incredulity at the idea from a host of hockey people.
But the fact that many believe this will be a disaster is neither here nor there, really. It's about whether Melrose can deliver the goods.
Melrose told ESPN.com Tuesday he knows there are skeptics.
"You take it as a challenge," Melrose said. "If you're going to coach, you have to have a thick skin. It's not what they think of you in October that matters; it's what they think of you in April that matters."
Melrose will rely on recently retired Wes Walz, who spent the past seven seasons in Minnesota before retiring in December 2007, and Rick Tocchet, who was on the Kings in 1994-95, as his assistant coaches. Like Melrose and Barrie, Walz is a Western Canadian who played his junior hockey in Lethbridge, Alberta. Tocchet, who returned last winter from a two-year suspension from the game following his participation in an illegal sports betting operation while an assistant to Gretzky in Phoenix, was a fiery competitor as a player and will demand accountability.
Melrose acknowledged he'll have to get back up to speed on how to run his bench and get practices down; but he figures after watching hundreds of games a season, he'll know opposing players well enough to know how he wants to match up against them and what style or system will work.
If Melrose has come full circle to land behind an NHL bench once more, he thinks the game has, too.
"It's about speed and scoring; it's about creativity," he said. "The skilled players have space again, goals are back."
If the Bolts succeed under Melrose, Koules won't have to look far for his next film script. But with coaches like Bob Hartley and Pat Burns and Joel Quenneville and Paul Maurice all still waiting for work, the commonly held belief of those in the hockey world is the results will be more grisly than Koules' "Saw" films.
Melrose inherits a dressing room that grew immune to the bristly nature of former coach John Tortorella. Melrose will have to impose his will firmly and quickly; and with strong personalities like Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Dan Boyle watching his every move, the coach will have to ensure he establishes credibility quickly.
"I'll be tested," Melrose said. But players always test new coaches, he added.
He said players will want to know if he means what he says, if he follows through on plans or promises and how he explains his decisions. "It's my job to have answers that make sense. That's just part of coaching," Melrose said.
Koules and Barrie have been busy in recent months, calling up other GMs and scouts, trying to make trades and running around like kids in a candy shop. They're the kinds of moves that have got the dander up among many of the game's movers and shakers.
But the new ownership group has also revealed themselves to be savvy and humane. Along with their move to lock up Lecavalier, they also grabbed David Carle with their final pick in the draft. Carle, the brother of San Jose Sharks defenseman Matt Carle, discovered at the scouting combine that he suffers from a heart condition that could lead to a heart attack under extreme duress. Carle is a graduate of Shattuck-St. Mary's, the hockey prep school in Faribault, Minn., now attended by Koules' son.
While it's extremely unlikely David Carle will be able to play hockey again, let alone become an NHL player, Koules and the rest of the Lightning staff agreed they wanted to use their final pick to select Carle, who was ranked 60th among North American skaters by NHL's Central Scouting.
"I want us to be one of those organizations that's known for doing the right thing," Koules said.
Whether that becomes reality or just wishful thinking remains to be seen.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.