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Fleury would be big risk

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 14, 2002

Did Lightning general manager Jay Feaster inquire about Theo Fleury because of serious interest or because the free-agent right wing is a distressed commodity who will play for a lot less than the $7-million he made last season?

Hard to say because neither Feaster nor Fleury's agent, Don Baizley, will confirm contact. But they aren't denying it.

Baizley did say his client will not make contract decisions until August.

Fleury, 34, would seem an unlikely fit for Tampa Bay. Not that he wouldn't help. The Oxbow, Saskatchewan, native has 443 goals, is a seven-time All-Star and won Olympic gold with Canada at Salt Lake City.

But Fleury, traded last month by the Rangers to the Sharks, is beset by personal demons and family problems that could make his signing and the team's financial investment risky.

Fleury missed 20 games in 2000-01 after checking himself into an inpatient substance-abuse program. He lives in Santa Fe, N.M., near the sponsor he says has helped keep him clean and sober.

One of the league's most likable and accommodating players did not miss a game last season, and was electric at times, scoring 24 goals. But the 5-foot-6, 180-pounder also totaled a career-high 216 penalty minutes, many times taking bad (some would say selfish) penalties late in games and exacerbating things by arguing with referees.

Stress over family problems apparently was a factor, as it seemed to be with other bizarre incidents.

Fleury punched the Sharks mascot after being ejected from a game for trying to injure forward Mark Smith. He went AWOL during a game against the Penguins, threatened to retire if he didn't get more respect from referees and criticized commissioner Gary Bettman and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell for not fixing the problem.

Is this a piece of the puzzle? Remember, the Lightning passed on a trade for then-Islanders forward Mariusz Czerkawski, in part, because of character issues.

Then again, Czerkawski is no Fleury.

"He is a world-class hockey player," Lightning center Brad Richards said. "It would be huge just to have a name like Theo Fleury on the team."

Mike Brophy, senior writer at the Hockey News, said Fleury might be who the Lightning needs.

"A lot of times when you have teams that haven't had a lot of success, the players are just happy to be in the league. They end up just fighting for their jobs," Brophy said. "Theo will fight to win."

But at what price? The best guess is Fleury wants between $3-million and $4-million. For big-market teams that can absorb a financial hit if things don't work out, he might be worth a gamble.

For Tampa Bay, for which every dollar counts, the risk-reward equation might not make sense unless Fleury is unsigned as the season approaches, his price plummets and a contract can be loaded with incentives.

"He brings instant energy," ESPN analyst Darren Pang said. "Because of what happened last year he has something to prove, and he always has been a good player when he has something to prove."

TRADE BAIT: Forward Vinny Prospal is coming off a terrific season in which he tied a career high with 55 points on 18 goals and a career-high 37 assists, but still might be the odd man out.

Two factors are at work: logjams at left wing and center, positions at which Prospal is most comfortable, and a probable arbitration hearing in which Prospal, who made $975,000 last season, might ask for more than $2-million, a lot more than the Lightning is willing to pay.

With Fredrik Modin, Ruslan Fedotenko, Dave Andreychuk and Chris Dingman expected to get the bulk of time at left wing, and Richards, Vinny Lecavalier, Tim Taylor, Alexander Svitov and Brian Holzinger at center, Prospal could become part of an attractive trade package.

ARBITRATION: Players must file by Monday but negotiations can continue until the hearing. Defenseman Pavel Kubina has filed. Other eligible Tampa Bay players are Modin, Dingman, Prospal, defensemen Dan Boyle and right wings Shane Willis and Andre Roy.


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