St. Petersburg Times
Tampa Bay Lightning

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Carolina is a model of success

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Stanley Cup final holds a good lesson for the Lightning. You don't have to break the bank to put together a playoff team.

With a relatively small investment, lights-out goaltending and some luck, you too could become Stanley Cup champion.

Sure, it's easier if, like the Red Wings, you shell out $66-million for a roster of future Hall of Famers. But the Hurricanes, whose $33-million payroll is $5-million below average, are getting more value.

There is no reason, with just a bit more financial commitment from ownership and a couple of smart trades and signings by general manager Jay Feaster, the Lightning couldn't get in on this too.

Do you really think Carolina is that much better than the Lightning?

Tampa Bay was 2-3 against Carolina this season, shut it out twice and had eight fewer victories. Carolina's record was 16th best in the league but it got to the playoffs, where anything can happen.

Did anyone really expect the Hurricanes to beat the Devils in the East quarterfinals? You're lying if you said yes. Remember, if former Lightning goalie Kevin Weekes doesn't make a once-in-a-lifetime save on John Madden in overtime of Game 5, Carolina probably falls out.

But it got past New Jersey and gained confidence. Then the Flyers and Bruins lost and the playing field evened. Did Carolina so outplay Toronto in the East final? Heck, no. The Hurricanes scored just 10 goals in six games. But the Maple Leafs lost focus trying to play physically instead of disciplined, and Carolina goalie Arturs Irbe was magnificent, allowing just six goals.

The point is, the Lightning has the most important piece: goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, one of the world's best who is reaching his prime.

Add a top-four defenseman and a scoring wing, get the production you should from Vinny Lecavalier, Shane Willis, Fredrik Modin, Vinny Prospal and Martin St. Louis, and if Dave Andreychuk continues to push, this is a playoff team.

Everything is a risk. The Lightning says it has lost about $30-million since Palace Sports & Entertainment took over in the summer of 1999. And the team will have to add to this season's $26-million payroll just to re-sign key elements such as Willis, Modin, Prospal and defenseman Pavel Kubina. It already bumped St. Louis almost $1-million from last season.

It is understandable the team does not want to see losses of $15-million.

But consider that Hurricanes president Jim Cain said his team bumped ticket prices 20 percent in every round of the playoffs and is making about $1-million a game in extra revenue. Carolina is still expected to lose about $5-million, but revenues are a lagging economic indicator.

It's not hard to imagine ticket sales exploding, which would go nicely with the hefty price increase sure to come. And why wouldn't the Triangle area's corporate hotshots want to identify with a team that has completely caught the community's imagination?

"Look," Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos said, "professional sports at every level is busted; baseball, football, basketball and hockey. The finances don't make any sense. What players are being paid doesn't make any sense."

What makes terrific sense in hockey is that time and time again you see hard work, grit, sacrifice and goaltending overcoming high-priced slap shots.

"It just proves what I've been trying to say for a long time," Karmanos said. "It is the quality of player, not the amount of payroll that really counts."

But it counts a little. Just look at the Hurricanes. The Lightning should.

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