© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2002
When determining what the Lightning must do to improve, and how fast it must do it, it is best to consider Nikolai Khabibulin.
Tampa Bay has one of the world's top three goaltenders. What a shame, and another slap at its fans, if ownership continues its tight-fisted economic model and allows him to die on the vine waiting for another couple of thousand season-ticket holders to sign up for another non-playoff run.
Khabibulin has another two seasons on his contract. There is a team option for a third. It would be nice if ownership allowed general manager Jay Feaster to add a few pieces away from the discount rack to get the Lightning into the playoffs during the goaltender's prime.
The Lightning does not have to go for budget-busting unrestricted free agents such as Bill Guerin, Bobby Holik or Teemu Selanne.
Much smarter, it seems, would be to take a few million bucks beyond the $1-million Feaster apparently saved by slashing the scouting budget, and the money to be saved by reducing signing bonuses, and add two or three good, solid players to the players willing to fight for their ice.
Do that, and with resurgent seasons from Vinny Lecavalier, Fredrik Modin and Shane Willis, you have a team that could cause some trouble. Especially with Khabibulin between the pipes.
Getting Alexander Svitov, last season's first-round pick, into camp also would help, but who knows when, or if, the Lightning will ever see this guy, who is stuck in some Russian military twilight zone.
What positions should the Lightning pursue?
The team needs two scoring forwards to solidify the first two lines. It also needs a top-four defenseman who can move the puck, but scoring is the team's most pressing need.
How many one-goal games did Tampa Bay lose? 19? How many ties did it have? 11?
Imagine how much noise the team would have made had it scored just 23 more goals to equal the 201 it scored in 2000-01.
Imagine the people lining up to buy non-discounted tickets. Imagine the corporate marketing opportunities. Imagine Ice Palace naming rights.
This plan is not foolproof. Many a team has embarrassed itself by spending wildly without real thought to what it was doing.
The Rangers come to mind as do the Capitals, who signed Jaromir Jagr to a ridiculous $11-million a year contract when it should have been obvious to anyone watching the Penguins the previous few seasons that he was not a savior.
Feaster will have to be smart. He will have to find solid players who fit into coach John Tortorella's blueprint of attitude and grit and who do not disrupt the locker room, the tightness of which has become a real asset.
(Pavel Bure, are you kidding?)
A tall order, but if you trust your people, you let them try.
Trades are much more likely than free agent signings. That also is a better way to control costs because you give up salary while you add.
Don't be surprised if the Lightning's first-round pick at this year's draft is packaged in a deal. It makes sense, especially if the prospect-heavy Lightning wants to win sooner rather than later.
Feaster also likely will deal from strength, and, right now, that is on defense.
Stan Neckar, who struggled the second half, is someone the team might consider moving. Highly regarded minor leaguers Josef Boumedienne and Sasha Goc also could be packaged.
Tampa Bay likes minor-leaguers Kristian Kudroc and Martin Biron, so don't expect them to be going anywhere.
The Lightning must be proactive this summer. Another season out of the playoffs would be too disheartening.
As Tom Wilson, CEO of Lightning owner Palace Sports & Entertainment, once said of the fans, "You don't know how long you can say, "Hang in there.' "
It would be unforgiveable if ownership did not allow Feaster to do the job for which he was hired.
It would be just plain dumb to waste one of the best goaltenders in the world.