'Safe is death' Tortorella in Lightning limbo


Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Tortorella won a Stanley Cup with the team in 2004.


Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Tortorella won a Stanley Cup with the team in 2004.

He's a fan of high-tempo hockey, with the Lightning embracing a "safe is death" philosophy ever since their run to the Cup.

He has had success in turning inconsistent phenom Vincent Lecavalier into one of the NHL's best players.

Tortorella isn't afraid to bench underachieving players and has no problem calling them out in public. (Witness his, "I'm getting tired of the 25-per-cent rule; it's deflating," when John Grahame allowed nine goals on 37 shots in two games against the Ottawa Senators in the 2006 playoffs).

He's all about delivering discipline and providing structure, not to mention frank, not-always-G-Rated quotes that help fill sports pages and radio broadcasts.

In short, he pretty much has all the credentials Senators general manager Bryan Murray says he's looking for in a coach to take over his dysfunctional club.

That makes Tortorella perhaps the most colourful possibility among a group of candidates that also includes fellow veteran coaches Bob Hartley, Pat Burns, Pat Quinn, and Terry Murray, Bryan's brother.

Adding to the intrigue, is the fact Tortorella's status with the Lightning is murky.

Tortorella has one year remaining on his contract with the Lightning, at $1.3 million U.S., but in an end-of-season meeting with general manager Jay Feaster, Tortorella suggested it might be time for him to step aside after the team finished dead last in the NHL standings.

After word of those comments leaked out to a Tampa radio station, Tortorella had an about-face, last week claiming he had made a mistake and instead wanted to stay to help in the rebuilding of the franchise.

While Tortorella is coaching the United States team at the world championship in Quebec City and Halifax, his flip-flop largely slid under the radar of the hockey world because of the NHL playoffs and buried in Tampa behind the NFL draft and the Tampa Bay Rays' lead over the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the American League's East Division.

Can you imagine how big the story would have played out in this country if it involved the coach of a Canadian team?

Regardless of how Tortorella really feels, the decision isn't his to make.

With the outgoing ownership group Palace Sports and Entertainment making way for incoming owner Oren Koules, Koules will soon have the ultimate say. He has a reputation for being hands-on and speculation has already surfaced that Koules is targetting former Los Angeles Kings coach Barry Melrose as his choice to lead the Lightning.

Tortorella received something less than a ringing endorsement in a statement from team president Ron Campbell.

"The organization's current priorities have been to finalize the business deal between the two ownership parties, and we have been advised that any non-time sensitive hockey decisions should wait, if at all possible, until the completion of the transactions upon us," Campbell wrote. "I hope all of us in the organization can continue to respect those desires until we are ready to move forward."

That leaves Murray in a tough spot. To interview Tortorella, he would need permission from the Lightning.

However, Murray says he's in no rush to resolve the coaching situation, aiming only to have a new coach in place by the NHL draft in Ottawa on June 19-21.

He says he already has some names on his list. He'll have to obtain permission to talk to those candidates from their current teams, and he will wait until next week before starting interviews.

Murray acknowledges that many candidates have plenty of NHL coaching experience. "All of (the candidates), I will at some point or other talk to and get the list narrowed down. I don't need to panic. There's no absolute timetable."

There is no shortage of coaches interested in the Senators' position.

Hartley, currently working as a television commentator for French-language RDS, said last week he was interested in returning to the NHL as a coach. He's also a Hawkesbury native who played for the Central Junior Hockey League's Hawkesbury Hawks when Murray coached the rival Rockland Nationals.

They have never worked together, but Hartley says he has always respected Murray for also emerging from the Ottawa Valley to enjoy NHL success. Hartley is still under contract to the Thrashers, who fired him after an 0-6 start last fall, but it's believed Atlanta would give Murray permission to talk.

Quinn, best known to Senators fans as the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs team that eliminated the Senators from the playoffs four times, has also expressed an interest in returning to the NHL. He turned down an offer to coach the Boston Bruins two years ago. He's also fresh off a world championship with Canada's under-18 squad.

Burns is also back behind the bench, working as an assistant to Ken Hitchcock with Canada's world championship team in Quebec City and Halifax. A former Gatineau policeman who got his coaching start with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Hull Olympiques, Burns has served as an NHL head coach in Toronto, Montreal, Boston and New Jersey. After surviving cancer, Burns has worked as a scout for the Devils, but he has always expressed an interest in getting back behind the bench.

Terry Murray is currently an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers, who lead the Canadiens 2-1 in an Eastern Conference semifinal. A former Ottawa 67's defenceman, he played 302 NHL games with the California Seals, Philadelphia Flyers, Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals. He has also served as head coach of Washington, Philadelphia and the Florida Panthers. His last head coaching job was from 1998-2000 with Florida, where Bryan Murray was general manager. They were fired together in December 2000.

Then there's Tortorella. If he did land the job with the Senators, he would have a say in any and all free-agent signings and would make sure he had his independence to coach the team without too much influence from Murray. Players might also receive a wake-up call from the opening day of what would prove to be a long, arduous training camp, all of it designed to have them as prepared as possible for what really matters: the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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