TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -Barry Melrose figures there's at least one advantage to joining a team with the worst record in hockey.
``We finished last,'' he said Tuesday after giving up the broadcast booth for a shot at turning the Tampa Bay Lightning around. ``The good news about coaching is I can only go up. I can only improve next year.''
With a lineup that includes All-Star Vincent Lecavalier and former NHL MVP and scoring champion Martin St. Louis, it's not unreasonable to expect the team to make strides under Melrose in a hurry.
The coach will also have No. 1 draft pick Steve Stamkos to work with, and the Lightning's new owners vow to do their part by being aggressive in free agency.
``We do have a good group here, an underrated group,'' Melrose said of the roster he inherits from John Tortorella, who was fired after Tampa Bay missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
``Vinny is one of the five-best players in the world. Marty St. Louis - his passion, his speed, his courage, what a role model for Stamkos coming in. ... We've got some young defensemen that need to mature. But you look at the other defenses in the NHL, this defense is OK.''
Melrose estimates he watched about 90 percent of Tampa Bay's games on TV last season. What he saw was a team that lost its zest under the hard-driving Tortorella, who led the club to its only Stanley Cup title four years ago.
The consolation for finishing a league-worst 31-42-9 was gaining the opportunity to select the talented Stamkos in last weekend's draft.
``I think what happened here is just a group that lost their passion in the second part of the season. That's why you win,'' Melrose said. ``You outwork other teams, you out-want other teams. When you lose that fire and lose that passion, it's very hard to compete in the NHL.''
Tortorella helped transform a perennial last-place team into a champion. But his demanding, in-your-face style wore on players, especially younger ones whom new owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie believe can benefit by playing for Melrose.
``When you talk to people in the league, the talent is here,'' Koules said, adding that he's banking on Melrose being someone who can get everyone on the team ``pulling in the same direction.''
Two of Melrose's assistants will be Rick Tocchet and Wes Walz. The Lightning are pursuing a third.
A major priority next season will be improving defensively.
``I believe in effort. I believe in energy. I believe in speed. I believe in aggression. I believe in letting guys be creative, using their imagination,'' Melrose said.
``I give them a lot of freedom. All I ask in return is that they compete defensively. Most people love playing for me. The guys who don't love playing for me usually you don't want being on your team anyway.''
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 the past 12 years at ESPN.
He said his time in television enabled him to get a good read on what works and doesn't work 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, the primary investors in a group purchasing the Lightning for $206 million, say they will be ``shockingly aggressive'' in free agency to upgrade the roster and surround Stamkos with players who can help him be successful.
They intend to be hands-on owners, and Melrose said that's OK.
``I'd much rather have people in charge who care, than people in charge who don't care,'' the coach said. ``And I can guarantee you, these two guys in charge care.''
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