The free-agency period begins Tuesday, and for the first time in years the Lightning could be a player.
In fact, the shopping spree for unrestricted free agents has taken on additional urgency because of a so-far failed attempt to acquire defenseman Roman Hamrlik from the Islanders for packages that included left wing Fredrik Modin and right wing Sheldon Keefe.
Points leader Vinny Prospal is not expected to sign before Tuesday and would be a huge loss. The left wing brings enthusiasm and was integral in helping center Vinny Lecavalier come to life. At least general manager Jay Feaster has tried to soften the potential blow by trading for 20-goal scorer Cory Stillman and signing hot-shot Finnish prospect Eero Somervuori.
But with Hamrlik a no-go, there are notable holes on the blue line. Stan Neckar and Nolan Pratt were not given qualifying offers and Swedish prospect Andreas Holmqvist is haggling over a contract, leaving just five defensemen on the roster.
That means Feaster might need the free-agent market to not only find the rugged stay-at-home defenseman he craves and a quarterback for the power play, but simply to fill out the defense. If it gets down to it, Feaster could re-sign, if still available, Neckar, Pratt or Darren Rumble, who also was not qualified.
In any event, don't expect a high-priced acquisition. The only reason Feaster could consider taking on Hamrlik's $3.6-million contract is he would be shedding Modin's $1.87-million qualifying offer and another $1-million if Keefe was included.
Still, it is difficult to know what Feaster is contemplating because he never talks about potential player moves. So we speculate.
Because most unrestricteds get there the old-fashioned way, by turning 31, their contracts tend to be relatively large. The $33-million payroll with which Feaster has said he is working is very small. So figure he is interested to see what players, young and old, become unrestricted because they do not receive qualifying offers.
Too bad Feaster can't acquire Hamrlik, 29, whom he has been pursuing since last season.
The Lightning's first draft choice carries a big offensive punch (nine goals, 32 assists in 73 games, plus-21 and an average 26:34 of ice time) and can play the point on the power play. Modin is attractive to New York, which is looking for a big left wing to play alongside center Alexei Yashin.
But Modin, 28, was a disappointment the past two seasons. Since scoring a career-high 32 goals in 2000-01, he has 31 total. And Feaster was clear last summer that he signed Modin for one year to see if he could return to 30-goal form.
That he hasn't is not lost on Islanders general manager Mike Milbury, who seems more inclined to trade softy defenseman Mattias Timander and is apparently more enamored of the Lightning's high-end youngsters such as Alexander Svitov, Nikita Alexeev and, as the rumor goes, Lecavalier.
Those are non-starters but shouldn't be an end point for Feaster. Dave Andreychuk and Tim Taylor have signed. If the GM can get a top-four defenseman and sign Prospal (which team president Ron Campbell has said he believes possible) this is a really good team. After such a superb season, it should not be an impossible dream.
"Our No. 1 objective is to improve the team," Campbell said at last weekend's draft. "Making the playoffs will help us with season-ticket sales, and it helps us with sponsorships. But you have to do it responsibly. No one player gets you the money back per se."
He's right. Two (Prospal and a defenseman) would be a better place to start.