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Success depends on growth

Player growth that is, not payroll, as the Lightning pins improvement on theory of natural progression.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 14, 2003

BRANDON - The Lightning is counting heavily this season on the theory of natural progression.

It is a simple, reasonable line of thought, and critical when dealing with what is basically the same team as last year. Players are a year older and wiser with another season of experience from which to draw. It follows, then, that they and, by extension, the team should be better.

Add solid goaltending led by Nikolai Khabibulin, who is expected to rebound from last season's inconsistency, and the upside increases.

"It is going to come down to how we approach it from a work-ethic standpoint," general manager Jay Feaster said Saturday, the first day of practice at the Ice Sports Forum. "I think there is unlimited potential in a number of players. The issue is, do we work?"

If they do, the Lightning will be the same scrappy, in-your-face team that raced to its first playoff berth since 1996. The question is, should the organization have done more this summer to help push the team to the next level by adding a significant player or two through trade or free agency?

It is a complicated tale of money (or lack of it) and the desire to maintain the locker room chemistry that played such a big part in the playoff push.

Feaster did well to acquire left wing Cory Stillman to offset the loss of unrestricted free agent and points leader Vinny Prospal. But a top-four defenseman, the need for which Feaster has spoken about often, has not materialized.

Instead, Feaster signed Janne Laukkanen, who, if his arthritic left hip holds up, will be an upgrade over Stan Neckar, whose contract expired. The transaction saved the Lightning $600,000 in base salary.

That was important because Feaster had $33-million with which to work. That is $5-million more than 2002-03, but much of that was tied up re-signing core players such as Stillman, center Brad Richards and defenseman Dan Boyle.

Asked about adding additional payroll, president Ron Campbell pointed to the $10-million he said the team lost last season.

"We're running a business and our goal is to ultimately turn a profit," he said.

Feaster would not talk about salary restrictions but it is believed that had he signed either free-agent defenseman Glen Wesley or Boris Mironov, both of whom were pursued, he would have had to find room within the $33-million. A trade, however, would also remove payroll, and Campbell said it is not as if the $33-million is a salary cap.

"We would be responsible and look at it," he said of a trade. "If Jay Feaster said we had a chance to improve our franchise, then we'd do it."

Feaster declined comment on specific players, but said of a top-four defenseman: "I don't think not having the guy is a fatal flaw. Is that something I'd still like to do? Sure. But those are tough deals to make. It's not for lack of effort or interest.

"We looked at guys in free agency but we made the decision that whoever we bring in has to fit the team concept. There were some skilled guys we talked about and decided against them because we said they did not fit."

Again, no specifics from the GM, but it is believed Mironov was considered bad for the locker room and there wasn't agreement within the organization on Wesley's ability.

"The chemistry we had is very delicate and that's something upstairs realized is important to our success," captain Dave Andreychuk said. "Just trying to make a change to get us to the next step without making the right change can be dangerous."

"But that doesn't mean this is a finished product," Feaster said. "We never said this is it and that's all it's going to be. From the standpoint of where we are, our D is solid enough that it's not going to keep us from winning games."

So is this team better? Consider Stillman scored at least 20 goals in five of his past six seasons and is a fine passer. And if Laukkanen pans out (he said his hip is pain-free and he wants to play about 70 games), he will give Tampa Bay another puck-mover.

And don't forget that natural progression.

"Our team, playing through another year and being together and going through the playoffs, it helps your development," coach John Tortorella said. "Our team is able to push because of maturity. We're still going to be a very young hockey team. We haven't gone out and signed huge free agents, but we've been together and we've grown together."

"You look at all our players under the age of 25 and it's legitimate to think they're all going to progress," Feaster said. "To the extent there are fans who say this is B.S. and we haven't done enough, all I can say is you have to wait until the last day of the season to see where we are."

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