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A few extra bucks really can help

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2002


Tom Wilson said some reassuring things last week. In case you missed it, the CEO of Lightning owner Palace Sports & Entertainment said the team is not for sale and that "we're as firmly committed to Tampa Bay as we have ever been."

Tom Wilson said some reassuring things last week. In case you missed it, the CEO of Lightning owner Palace Sports & Entertainment said the team is not for sale and that "we're as firmly committed to Tampa Bay as we have ever been."

He also said, "We're full steam ahead."

It was nice to hear. Now let's see the company turn those words into actions by making more money available for player salaries.

It is an old bone at which to pick but it is worth it because, in case you haven't noticed, the Lightning has something going on at the Ice Palace.

Yes, the steps have been maddeningly tentative and there will be more ups and downs. But with 18 games to go, beginning with tonight's against the Thrashers at Philips Arena, Tampa Bay's 23 victories are one less than it had all last season.

The team's 55 points are 14 more than it had at the same time last season. At its current pace it will finish with 71, a 12-point improvement, and that is a step worth noticing.

It also is the kind of step that should prompt ownership to kick in where in the past it has held back, because with a little more investment, the Lightning is a real playoff team.

Nobody is asking Palace Sports to spend like the Red Wings, Rangers or Flyers. But the Lightning's payroll is $26-million, $12-million lower than the league average. So even a few million more than what it will cost to sign its core players will go a long way.

The Lightning is full of players and a coaching staff fighting like mad to make something out of what has been a rotten franchise. That energy and commitment has been especially noticeable since the Olympic break and makes this an easy team to like.

It would be nice if ownership really joined the effort, to say nothing of rewarding some of the most loyal fans in the league.

This is not said lightly. It is said with the understanding the team, according to Wilson, has lost $10-million a season since Palace Sports took over in the summer of 1999, and with the understanding that another $10-million has been put into the Ice Palace to bring it into the real world.

But here is a business model even we non-business types can understand: A winning, playoff-contending team will fill the Ice Palace, meaning no more discounted or comped tickets and windfalls in concessions and marketing.

It is not without risk. Look what happened to the Rangers when they tried to buy a Stanley Cup. And, of course, losing $10-million a season is certainly better than losing $15-million.

On the other hand, if you trust your general manager to make the right moves, either by trade or through free agency, and you trust your coach to create a winning system, then you have to let them do their jobs.

Some changes already are taking place. General manager Jay Feaster has cut the scouting staff from 24 to 12, which he said will save about $1-million that will be moved into salaries.

Feaster also is working on redistributing the money Palace Sports provides for hockey operations to get more into payroll.

One way is to shun signing bonuses on new contracts for younger players and put that money into longer contracts. In that way, bonus money, of which Tampa Bay paid out $4-million this season, will not diminish the money allocated for payroll.

What could the Lightning do with an extra $4-million? Add a top-four defenseman who can move the puck and another physical, scoring forward.

The Lightning, to its credit, gave goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin the richest contract in team history. It is a bargain.

Imagine Khabibulin holding the fort for a team with a healthy Martin St. Louis, resurgent seasons from Fredrik Modin, Shane Willis and Vinny Lecavalier, and a defense that continues to mature.

Now imagine adding just a couple of more pieces.

Then you have something. Then you have a playoff team. Then you have ownership living up to its commitments.

REALITY CHECK: The Lightning entered Monday's games 11 points behind Montreal for the final playoff spot in the East. Doesn't sound like much when you think about getting two points for a victory. But consider this: If Montreal goes 8-8-1 in its final 17 games, it will have 83 points. The Lightning would have to go 14-4 just to match.

NO FINE ... YET: Feaster said he had not heard from the league if there will be consequences for coach John Tortorella's uncomplimentary critique Friday night of Brad Meier's qualifications as an NHL referee.

ON THE ICE: St. Louis skated Monday at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon for the first time since breaking his right leg Jan. 23 in Pittsburgh. St. Louis, still tied for the Lightning goal-scoring lead with 16, said he had less discomfort than expected.

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