BRANDON - The way center Tim Taylor sees it, signing Brad Richards was a pretty big deal, and it has nothing to do with his three-year, $9.25-million contract. It has everything to do with having the entire team in training camp on time.
Players always say holdouts are not a distraction. Taylor isn't buying it.
"As much as people say it's not a distraction, it is," he said after a recent workout at the Ice Sports Forum, where camp opens Sept.11. "This year is the year to build and take a step forward. We had great team chemistry last year and the guys are excited to be back and get going again."
That is difficult when someone is holding out.
Players and coaches are bombarded with questions about how a player's absence will affect the team. Line or defensive combinations are subject to change. When the player finally signs, there are concerns about his conditioning.
"You don't want the distraction," defenseman Dan Boyle said. "Chemistry is affected by that."
The Lightning only has to remember what happened when Vinny Lecavalier held out before the 2001-02 season. The center missed all of camp and ended the season with 37 points, his lowest total since his rookie season. Compare that with last season, when everyone was in camp, Tampa Bay started 7-1-2 and earned its first playoff berth since 1996.
With only four of its first 11 games this season against playoff teams, and nine games at home, a good start is there for the taking.
"I can't stress enough the importance of a good start and maintaining our focus to get back to where we all loved being this past season," general manager Jay Feaster said. "It can't be done unless we're all signed and in camp."
"We're going to start the season as a complete team," defenseman Jassen Cullimore said. "A lot of good comes from that."
TO RUSSIA, WITH LOVE: Evgeny Konstantinov, the organization's No. 3 goalie, will play at least part of this season for Severstal Cherepovets of the Russian elite league. That is what happens when your team can't find an AHL affiliate.
Tampa Bay will send six players to Hershey, Pa. (Avalanche), and Hamilton, Ontario (Canadiens). Neither wanted a goalie.
Tampa Bay could have sent Konstantinov, 22, a native of Kazan, Russia, to its ECHL affiliate in Pensacola.
"But he's played there before, so from a progression standpoint, it would not have been a step forward," Feaster said. "The optimal would have been in the AHL. The next best thing was to allow him to play in Russia against that level of competition."
The problem comes Jan. 15. Under the NHL's agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation, that is the last day the Lightning can recall Konstantinov.
HELPING HIMSELF: It wasn't long ago that Konstantinov was heir apparent to Nikolai Khabibulin. But two seasons of slowed development created questions about his future. He has one year remaining on his contract.
"We are certainly disappointed as far as his development," Feaster said. "We believe he has the physical tools, but we need consistency from him and a consistent work ethic. Very honestly, we need him to take a step up."
Feaster cuts Konstantinov no slack for playing last season for AHL Springfield, which the Lightning shared with the Coyotes:
"He didn't seize the opportunity to be the No. 1 guy, and I believe that opportunity existed for him. You have to make the most of your opportunities whenever it is presented. There was no sense Georgie did that."
ODDS AND ENDS: Vinny Prospal has been skating at the informal workouts. He said he leaves today to join the Mighty Ducks, who signed him as an unrestricted free agent. ... Former Lightning defenseman Stan Neckar said his DUI charge, stemming from May's arrest, was not resolved at Monday's court appearance. He has another court date next month. ... Rookie camp begins Friday in Traverse City, Mich.