The Resurrection of Rick Tocchet
With Melrose again banished from the NHL coaching ranks -- and I think we can say with confidence that he won't ever be returning -- owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie had little choice but to turn to assistant head coach Tocchet, and hand him the keys to the sputtering Lightning for the rest of the season.
Yes, this is the same Rick Tocchet that the league banished for 162 games after his role in an admittedly small-time New Jersey gambling ring was discovered by the New Jersey State Police. The price for Tocchet was terribly high -- a leave of a full two calendar years from the sport that he had made his life in combined with two years of probation.
Here at FanHouse, two of our former colleagues, Greg Wyshynski and Jes Golbez, had it out over Tocchet's future, with Greg voting for a season-long suspension, while Golbez wrote that it was time for us to put aside the moralizing and let Tocchet get back to earning a living the only way he knew how.
For me, it's very hard not to sympathize with Tocchet. Had he not been a former NHL player and an assistant coach working in Phoenix under the greatest player in the history of the game in Wayne Gretzky, the Tocchet case would have gone down the memory hole. But when the New Jersey State Police discovered that an internal investigation of one of their own had uncovered links to Gretzky and his wife, there was no chance they weren't going to do all they could to milk the investigation and subsequent prosecution for all it was worth.
In the end, the NHL more or less decided that Tocchet had suffered enough, and officially reinstated him on February 7, 2008, the two-year anniversary of the start of his indefinite leave from the Coyotes. At the end of the season, he snagged the job with Melrose, and now the man who was staring down the barrel of what could have very well turned into a lifetime suspension now finds himself a member of the very small fraternity of NHL coaches.
So what's next for Tocchet? Yes, the Lightning are in fourth place in the Southeast and 14th place in the Eastern Conference. But with only four points separating them from 8th place in the Eastern Conference, the season is not lost.
So what's Tampa Bay's problem? Despite all the money that Tampa Bay spent in the offseason bolstering their forward corps, the team only has one line that's producing -- and that's the one that features holdovers Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. Rookie Steve Stamkos, who plenty of folks -- including me -- had written in for the Calder, has looked overmatched, while free agent acquisition Ryan Malone hasn't produced numbers anywhere near what might justify his gaudy contract.
Is there a bright side? Despite the defense being a mess, with more players coming and going than you could possibly keep track of, goaltender Mike Smith has proved to be something of a revelation, posting a 2.47 GAA and a save percentage of .929.
I watched the Lightning play the Caps on Monday night, and it seemed pretty clear that a lot of the problem was focus and motivation. With backup goalie Olie Kolzig returning to Verizon Center as a member of the opposition for the first time in his career, his teammates more or less hung him out to dry in a first period where they fell behind 3-0. The Lighting did eventually get two goals from ageless warrior Gary Roberts, but it was far too late to matter as they fell, 4-2.
After that game, Melrose seemed to be out of answers, and it's clear management agreed with him. Now it's up to Tocchet to see if he can get this disparate set of parts working together and listening to him. And while I'm not sure even Scotty Bowman could rescue the situation in Tampa Bay, something tells me Tocchet is just happy to have the opportunity.