St. Petersburg Times
Tampa Bay Lightning

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Last season's backups now think they have all it takes

Injuries to starters gave them a chance, and they proved to be valuable. That gives the coaches something to think about.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 29, 2002

BRANDON -- A year ago Sheldon Keefe, Nikita Alexeev and Martin Cibak came to Lightning training camp as prospects, knowing they had little chance to make the roster.

They were timid. Not anymore.

After filling in admirably when the team was stricken last season with injuries, Keefe, Alexeev and Cibak arrived this season convinced they can play in the NHL. Equipped with self-confidence, they are among six forwards battling for three roster spots.

"There's not a lot of chances like last year, and I guess we used it the right way," said Alexeev, the Lightning's first-round pick in 2000. "I learned a lot from the older guys, and this year I'm more confident, more relaxed and I know what I'm doing."

Same for Keefe.

Same for Cibak.

Midway through last season, Tampa Bay had nearly as many forwards in street clothes on game day as on skates. Among the injured: Martin St. Louis (broken leg), Fredrik Modin (wrist), Vinny Lecavalier (ankle), Tim Taylor (groin), Brian Holzinger (shoulder) and Gordie Dwyer (shoulder). The lineup often was a patchwork of minor-league players.

"It was such a good group of guys coming together to try to hold us together last year," coach John Tortorella said. "It was an opportunity for them to showcase themselves, and they feel that's a steppingstone to try to make the team this year. They don't want to leave. They don't want to go back down to ride the bus."

The confidence gained last season by Keefe, Alexeev and Cibak, combined with the acquisition of second-line wing Ruslan Fedotenko and arrival of 2001 draft pick Alexander Svitov, has made this one of the most competitive camps in years. Tortorella will carry 27 players for the final three preseason games but must be down to 23 for the Oct. 10 opener at Florida.

Last season's replacement players are in the mix.

"Those guys have some NHL experience now, and they're using that in this camp," team captain Dave Andreychuk said. "It's going to make them better, and it's going to push the guys who are ahead of them. I wouldn't want to be in the position to make those choices, but it's good to have that competition."

Keefe, a 5-11, 185-pound right wing from Ontario, played 39 games last season. Switching between wing and center, he impressed coaches with his eagerness to hound opponents and mix it up in front of the net. After the Olympic break he began to score, totaling six goals and seven assists.

"The second half of the season I was doing all the things I always thought I could do in this league," said Keefe, who lost 20 pounds in the offseason to become a quicker skater. "Ever since then, it's like, "I'm here.' I feel like I've arrived. My first season, there was always a little bit of trying to keep up. Now I feel really comfortable and feel like I belong."

Alexeev, a 6-5, 215-pound left wing from Russia, played 44 games, showing flashes of the scoring talent that made him the eighth pick in 2000. Cibak, a 6-1, 195-pound center from Slovakia, had a goal and five assists in 26 games.

"Last year I was surprised to play in the NHL," said Cibak, a checking center chosen 252nd in 1998. "I was hoping before the start of the season to play one, two, maybe three games. After I started to play, I started thinking, "You know, I think I can play this game.' After 25 games everything was good. Guys were good in the dressing room, and I felt great."

Though last season's efforts do not assure anyone a roster spot, Keefe, Alexeev and Cibak are forcing coaches to make difficult choices.

"Confidence in a player to play at the top level of his game is so important," Tortorella said. "They need to feel good about themselves, to puff their chests out and say, "I can do it.' That's what you want."

So much for timid.

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