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John Tortorella guided the Lightning to a Stanley Cup championship in 2004. ((Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press))

The Tampa Bay Lightning fired John Tortorella on Tuesday, four years after he coached the NHL team to its first and only Stanley Cup championship.

Tampa Bay finished last in the 30-team league this season with a record of 31-42-9, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2002, despite a roster that includes stars Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.

Tortorella's crowning achievement was the Cup title in 2004, but Tampa hasn't won a playoff round since.

"This has been a very difficult decision because of everything that John Tortorella has meant to and done for this organization," Lightning general manager Jay Feaster said in a statement. "Torts came to Tampa and not only built the foundation under our club but he also changed the culture and raised the expectations, eventually leading us to the Stanley Cup in 2004.

"What he accomplished during his tenure in Tampa was nothing short of remarkable and our organization will always owe him our thanks, gratitude and deep respect.

"At the same time," Feaster continued, "we need to look to the future of the both the club and the organization, and we must make decisions with the future in mind."

It has been rumoured in hockey circles that former Los Angeles Kings coach-turned broadcaster Barry Melrose is the choice of the Lightning's prospective ownership to take over behind the bench.

Melrose is a friend of Oren Kroules, who is leading a group that is trying to buy the team.

"John was entering the final year of his contract and extending his contract was not a viable option," Feaster said. "Having him enter and coach the season in a lame duck status was not something I was prepared to recommend to ownership."

Tortorella's NHL record was 239-222-36-38 during his seven seasons with the Lightning, having previously served as an assistant with Buffalo, Phoenix and the New York Rangers.

Tortorella, who will turn 50 later this month, recently coached the United States at the world hockey championships.

With files from the Associated Press