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Dudley made many right moves as GM

The Lightning still isn't a top team, but it showed some signs of improvement in his reign, which ended last week.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002

When Rick Dudley came to Tampa in July 1999, the Lightning was pathetic. As Dudley leaves, officially resigned but with shoe prints you know where, there at least is reason for hope.

The payoff is still in the future, and that has to be a tough pill to swallow for the league's most loyal fans. But at least when you go to the Ice Palace you figure this team has a chance to win, not all the time, but at least that night.

Dudley did that.

He did it despite a payroll that, in relative terms, could fit on the head of a pin; a $17-million base last season, about $22-million this season.

The numbers are not quite as bad if you include signing bonuses, as does the NHL Players Association. Under that formula, Tampa Bay's payroll jumps to $26-million, which is $1-million more than CEO Tom Wilson said the team was ready to spend.

In that sense, give owner Palace Sports & Entertainment grudging credit. In the real world, however, Dudley was still hamstrung by a budget $12-million below the league average.

Despite that, until a slew of injuries sapped its strength, the Lightning (with luck, every bounce and lights-out goaltending) may have tried to sneak into the final playoff spot in the East.

Dudley did that.

He did an admirable job last summer of trying to upgrade the team without breaking the bank, and every player he brought in made a contribution.

He might have found a future star in defenseman Mathieu Biron, acquired along with a draft pick from the Islanders for underachieving Alexander Kharitonov (a Dudley draft choice) and the too-expensive Adrian Aucoin. And if you include last season's steal of a trade with the Coyotes for goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and defenseman Stan Neckar, the grade is even higher.

Other good moves: trading for Fredrik Modin, signing Martin St. Louis and fighting to get Ben Clymer switched from defense to right wing.

There were mistakes. Trading Michael Nylander to the Blackhawks for Reid Simpson and Bryan Muir was a fur ball. As was sending Niklas Sundstrom and a draft choice to the Sharks for Andrei Zyuzin (a terrible bust), Shawn Burr, Bill Houlder (another contract casualty) and Steve Guolla.

Dudley also focused, almost to a fault, on prospects. In the big picture, that is understandable. The Lightning's minor-league system was in shambles, and there is no way to ensure long-term success without a healthy base.

But perhaps there could have been a way to package prospects and/or draft choices to gain an additional player or two who could have helped now.

Not for the reasons the team brass gives, to divert money from rookie contracts laden with bonuses and incentives to more fixed-cost base-salary deals, but to give fans more of a bridge between a dismal past and what could be a brighter future.

Which brings us to Vinny Lecavalier.

He and coach John Tortorella have downplayed their differences, but the two haven't seen eye-to-eye since Lecavalier was scratched for the season's first two games and his captaincy was taken away after he signed a new contract.

Dudley reluctantly agreed to accept trade offers in an attempt "to make a difficult situation a little less difficult." And Dudley was ready to pull the trigger.

There were two trades on the table that would have brought perhaps three established NHL players, though the trading partners never have been revealed.

Either would have made the Lightning immediately better. But president Ron Campbell said no, citing marketing concerns, and calling Lecavalier and Khabibulin "cornerstones of the franchise."

Funny, when Lecavalier's contract talks were raging during training camp, Campbell said the Lightning is "much-improved with or without Vinny."

The long-term will decide who was right in that dispute. Short-term, Campbell stopped Dudley from doing his job.

Under those circumstances, he could not stay.

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