The Lightning's first pick in franchise history comes back to town, but this time as an Islander.
By FRANK PASTOR
Published April 8, 2004
TAMPA - The rumors always seem to swirl around Roman Hamrlik. Seven years ago, they had the Czech defenseman leaving the Lightning. The past couple of seasons, they had him coming back.
It wasn't until Hamrlik picked up a newspaper a few months ago that he learned otherwise.
"When I checked USA Today one day, I saw you guys got (defenseman Darryl) Sydor," Hamrlik said. "I said, "They might be pretty set. I'm not going back.' "
Hamrlik will return to Tampa this week, but as a member of the New York Islanders, the Lightning's opponent in the first round of the playoffs. And though he never developed into the perennial All-Star many thought he might after Tampa Bay made him the first pick in franchise history, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound blueliner's hard shot from the point and ability to eat up ice time could impact the series.
"He's had a little bit of an off year this year, but he's just a fairly consistent player," Lightning defenseman Cory Sarich said. "He's good in his own end and fairly gifted offensively. He's just got all the skills, and he's a pretty relaxed player out there. He always keeps a cool head about him."
Last summer, the Lightning attempted to reacquire Hamrlik for Fredrik Modin, Sheldon Keefe and a draft pick but talks hit a snag when the Islanders asked that Alex Svitov or Nikita Alexeev be included in the deal. Talks resurfaced in December.
Though Tampa Bay later sent Svitov to Columbus along with a 2004 fourth-round pick for Sydor, Hamrlik said he wasn't disappointed a deal was not consummated to put him back in a Lightning sweater.
"I had a great opportunity to play here and play in the NHL," Hamrlik said. "Tampa is a nice place, and they have a great team right now. But I really enjoy playing for the New York Islanders. I don't want to move anywhere."
Hamrlik, the first overall pick in the 1992 entry draft, was rushed into the league and never truly realized his potential with Tampa Bay. Though he amassed 65 points in his 1995 All-Star season, he struggled under former coach Terry Crisp and was a minus-106 in five-plus seasons with the Lightning.
He returned from a fishing trip in December 1997 to learn he had been traded along with Paul Comrie to Edmonton for Bryan Marchment, Steve Kelly and Jason Bonsignore as Tampa Bay sought to inject life into a struggling offense. Three years later, Hamrlik was sent to the Islanders in exchange for Eric Brewer, Josh Green and a second-round pick.
Hamrlik, who turns 30 Monday, said he remembers being drafted by the Lightning.
"I still have that moment in my head," he said. "The team gave me the opportunity to come here and play in the NHL. I had good times and bad times when I was with the Lightning. I was here six years, and we only made the playoffs one time, so that was kind of sad. Now they have a very good team."
Lightning center Vinny Lecavalier, the top overall pick in the '98 draft, understands the expectations that accompany such a high selection.
"It's a tough situation, obviously, but I think you've got to work with it," Lecavalier said. "When I came in, our team I think finished last my first year, so you've got to battle through it and, right now, five or six years later, we're in first place."
The development of home-grown players such as Lecavalier and Brad Richards, the addition of veterans Dave Andreychuk and Tim Taylor and a commitment to coach John Tortorella's puck-pursuit system propelled the Lightning to the top of the Eastern Conference.
The team bears little resemblance to the one Hamrlik remembers.
"When I started playing here, we had older guys who were more inexperienced in the playoffs," Hamrlik said. "We didn't really push each other. We had lots of trades and lots of different players around. Now, they've got lots of young guys with a lot of talent, a lot of speed. You can see they really push each other. They stick together pretty much. They are a very good team now."
One Hamrlik nearly was part of. If you believe the rumors.