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One Lightning unit is staying on defensive

The front office has been looking to tweak the back line. The defensemen there now don't see the need.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003

BRANDON -- The Lightning wants to pick up a defenseman before Tuesday's trade deadline.

General manager Jay Feaster has said it. The media have reported it. If you ask Brad Lukowich, the media have reported it ad nauseam.

"The media writes it more than anything," the defenseman said after Tampa Bay's practice Saturday at the Ice Sports Forum. "We've talked about it. We read it. We're just sitting here working our butts off trying to make ourselves better."

They have gotten results.

An improved defense is one reason the Lightning is on an 8-2-2 tear, is gaining on its first playoff berth since 1996 and is challenging the Capitals for the Southeast Division title.

The players persevered after defenseman Jassen Cullimore went down in early December with a torn left rotator cuff. A sense of purpose bonded them on the ice and, more important, in the locker room.

Lukowich does not see a problem to be fixed.

"The facts are right in front of you," he said. "Check the paper. The shots are down, the goals are down. We're up. And it hasn't been from spending $3-million or $4-million on a guy that hasn't been here. It's the guys who have been here since Day1. The guys in the room are getting the job done."

The sentiment is shared.

"Do we need it?" defenseman Nolan Pratt said when asked about a new body on the blue line. "We're playing pretty well right now. That's as good as I can answer that."

"We started something good here," defenseman Stan Neckar said. "We'd like to finish that way with the people we have and do the best we can."

Feaster said his motivation has nothing to do with performance. In fact, he said, "At the end of the day, the defense has done a very good job."

He is looking for depth.

With Cullimore not scheduled back for another two to three weeks, and with the first call-up from AHL Springfield likely to be 21-year-old Kristian Kudroc, one or two veteran bodies would help ensure against injuries.

Feaster said he does not necessarily need a top-four defenseman such as the Kings' Aaron Miller, the Sabres' Alexei Zhitnik or the Hurricanes' Glen Wesley, all of whom are on the radar. Lower-tiered but experienced players would be just as welcome.

The tricky part is acquiring players who do not disrupt the locker room.

"As the team evolves and wants to stay competitive year after year, we're going to need improvement on defense. We're going to need improvement on our forwards," coach John Tortorella said. "But you weigh that against the chemistry that's going on with those guys and the chemistry of our team and you need to be careful.

"I've told Jay I don't want a deal made just for the sake of making a deal. We like our team. As you go though, there may be something that you just can't look by, but we're very happy with the group of guys we have here and want to go to war with them."

Feaster's picture is bigger.

"The worst thing that can happen with the way we're going is we get an injury," he said. "Then we're like, 'Where is the next one coming from?"'

The defense, which also includes Cory Sarich, Dan Boyle, Pavel Kubina and Darren Rumble, is coming into a position of strength.

It has done a good job clogging the slot and limiting second chances, and is much better at making the first pass out of the defensive zone.

The commitment to clear the puck to relieve opposition pressure also has increased. Instead of turning over the puck trying to make a risky play, players are smartly opting for faceoffs or chipping the puck over the glass.

They've had help. The forwards are doing a better job getting back and covering for pinching defensemen, and goaltenders Nikolai Khabibulin and John Grahame have been solid.

The commitment to team defense has helped free the defensemen to play their game.

"They're not the most gifted group, but it's one of the hardest working group of guys within our team," Tortorella said.

Feaster said no defenseman will be traded before the deadline, and no defenseman said he would mind if the deadline passed without a deal.

"We're fine where we are," Lukowich said. "If we get someone else, it has to make us better."

Tortorella believes the trade talk has given that process a jolt.

"When players want to prove to the coach, to management, to fans that you're wrong about them, that's the greatest motivation," he said.

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