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Playoffs 2004

Terrific turnaround

Jay Feaster and company molded the lightweight Lightning into heavyweight contenders.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published April 8, 2004

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[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
The promotion of John Tortorella to coach marked the beginning of the Lightning’s transformation.

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Click for graphic

TAMPA - Jay Feaster admits he is a little worried; maybe even a little scared . . . in a hyperbolic sort of way.

The Lightning general manager looks at the franchise-record 106 points his team gathered while earning the East's No. 1 playoff seed and wonders what's next.

"It's like, "What are you going to do for an encore?' " Feaster said.

Not that Feaster minds that kind of pressure. It's a heck of a lot better than what he faced when he took over in February 2002 and was charged with stabilizing the team's finances, streamlining the hockey operations department and bringing Tampa Bay back to the playoffs for the first time since 1996.

Two years and two months later, the Lightning has won consecutive Southeast titles and enters the postseason against the Islanders as one of the favorites to reach the Stanley Cup final.

"Last year, it was just the fun of being there," Feaster said. "Now the expectations are different. The pressures are different. You look at it and say, "How are you going to do it next year? What's it going to take, 110 points? What's the number going to be?'

"I wouldn't trade it for anything. I really like the fact that we have a great group of coaches and a great hockey operations staff and a great bunch of guys. I love to watch how they've come together and played as a team."

The path has been alternately smooth and bumpy, harsh and harmonious, doleful and delightful. But never, ever dull.

Five key moments stand out. Through all the games, all the goals, all the ups and downs, had it not been for these circumstances and how they played out, maybe we're talking about another 50-loss season rather than one of the best teams in the league.

It is an interesting list and includes the signings of captain Dave Andreychuk and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. The working relationship between Feaster and coach John Tortorella, and the resolution of the head-butting between Tortorella and center Vinny Lecavalier.

Some creative accounting puts the acquisitions of Hart candidate Martin St. Louis and defenseman Darryl Sydor under one heading. Play along. One represents the start of Tampa Bay's revival, the other its solidification.

Whatever, the results are indisputable.

"To think," Feaster said, "that after two and a half years we'd be at 100-plus points. I'd be lying if I said I thought that was going to happen."

Tortorella-Feaster

Feaster said that when former general manager Rick Dudley promoted Tortorella in January 2001 from assistant to coach after Steve Ludzik was fired, it was the beginning of Tampa Bay's transformation.

Tortorella's no-nonsense, demanding and sometimes confrontational style, his preparation and attention to detail set a standard lacking in the locker room. The addition of associate coach Craig Ramsay created a tight staff that includes goaltenders coach Jeff Reese and video/assistant coach Nigel Kirwan.

While one of Feaster's mandates was to cut costs - he immediately slashed the scouting budget from $2-million to $1-million - he also had to improve team personnel.

With the help of player personnel director Bill Barber, head scout Jake Goertzen and scouts Dirk Graham and Rick Paterson, he acquired players such as goalie John Grahame, wing Cory Stillman and Sydor while keeping the Lightning's youthful core intact.

"The key thing, though, is Jay and John together," CEO Tom Wilson said. "It's so hard to separate the two. They're like one guy now. That marriage is the key thing for the franchise. Jay brought us a stability and patience to let the young guys mature, and there's a certain magic John has to bring the most out of them."

That marriage seemed to be at a breaking point last summer when Tortorella, upset the team did not offer contract extensions to he and his staff, went public. The eruption ended up being more a blip than a quake as a face-to-face meeting appeared to clear the air and the staff got its extensions in February.

"Certainly it was an emotional time," Feaster said. "Yet the one thing I've always believed, and John and I believe, is that it can't work unless the manager and head coach are on the same page. I like Torts. I respect where he came from, but you don't let that kind of stuff turn into long-term hurt. You have to move forward as a hockey club."

Dave Andreychuk

How has Andreychuk affected the Lightning? Forget for a moment the three 20-goal seasons, the power play goals, the penalty killing, the faceoff proficiency, and look inside the locker room.

Think it's coincidence his locker is between Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards? The coaching staff wanted him to share his knowledge.

Andreychuk, 40 and in his 22nd season with 634 goals (11th all-time) and an NHL-high 270 on the power play, showed all his young teammates how to win, to take responsibility for their games, to play hurt and play hard. You can party, he once explained, but you'd better be ready to work the next morning.

Center Tim Taylor imparts those lessons as well, but Andreychuk, a future Hall of Famer, carries the most weight.

"Andy came in and gave us the ability to understand what it would take to get where we wanted to go on the ice and off," Feaster said. "What he has done for this franchise I don't know how to put into words. I don't know if you can ever adequately communicate that to the public or Andy. To me, he is the one who helped reinforce (Tortorella's) fundamental beliefs of how you go about it."

"Everybody can see the dedication he brings to the game," Richards said. "He just keeps plugging away. It's unbelievable. He's a great example."

Andreychuk, signed as a free agent in July 2001, said his experience with the Lightning is one of his most gratifying.

"It's very satisfying for me to come here at the end of my career and watch players develop in front of me and have a hand in it," he said. "It's been fun. It's been fun to be around."

Nikolai Khabibulin

He's taken some heat recently from the coach and the media for soft goals at bad times, but don't underestimate what Khabibulin has meant to the franchise.

Acquired in March 2001 with defenseman Stan Neckar for Mike Johnson, Paul Mara, a prospect and a second-round draft pick, the goalie gave the Lightning instant credibility. He also allowed Tortorella to fast-track the implementation of his everybody-forward, puck-pursuit system knowing Khabibulin would be a stable last line of defense.

"He was one of the main pieces of the foundation as we have grown as a team," Tortorella said. "He's been a big part of this team growing. You can't have every mistake end up in your net when you're trying to tell a young team that it is a game of mistakes. And that's where Nik really brought us along understanding what it is as far as the goaltending position. So you can't forget that."

There is no forgetting the 16-game unbeaten streak that propelled Tampa Bay last season to its first playoff appearance since 1996, or his 60-save masterpiece that clinched the East quarterfinals in Game 6 against the Capitals.

The question is, will Khabibulin, who has slipped this season, be able to once again carry the Lightning?

"As the team grows, everyone has to keep on growing, and this team has grown," Tortorella said. "You always have to think about getting better."

Tortorella-Lecavalier

Whether it was blown out of proportion or not, there was a sore spot between the coach and the team's star player.

It began at the start of the 2001-02 season, when Tortorella held Lecavalier out of the team's first two games because he felt the center, who missed all of training camp in a contract dispute, was not ready. Lecavalier also lost his captaincy.

Lecavalier felt slighted. Tortorella said he wanted to protect Lecavalier until he got into shape and ease some of the pressure by making him an alternate captain.

Tortorella demanded Lecavalier play a complete game. Lecavalier lost playing time when he didn't. Lecavalier struggled, and his 37 points were his lowest total since his rookie season.

The bad feelings were so intense, Dudley almost traded Lecavalier to the Maple Leafs before ownership pulled the plug. The near-trade ultimately cost Dudley his job and elevated Feaster.

Ramsay said the conflict's resolution was "gigantic." He also said that Feaster's backing of the coaching staff "is a testament to him, and the success of the team is due in large part to that."

Ramsay said the easy thing would have been to fire Tortorella.

"But we didn't do that here," Ramsay said. "We set a tone. We're all going to work on this thing. Had they not done that, Vinny would still be where he was. He'd still be kind of a fun player, but he's a better player now and a stronger person."

Whether he admits it or not, Lecavalier has blossomed doing what Tortorella demanded. His 65 goals and 79 assists the past two seasons prove it.

"They both had to realize where the other was coming from," Taylor said. "Vinny has matured as a player and Torts has laid off a little bit as well. Obviously, for Vinny's career, it was something he had to get over. The coach wasn't against him. He was trying to help us as a team."

Said Feaster: "Wherever this ship was going, whether it was a luxury liner on a nice cruise to the Bahamas or the Titanic going to the bottom of the ocean, we were going to be in this together. Myself, Torts and Vinny are going there together. I think that was a significant time as well."

Martin St. Louis and Darryl Sydor

Like the Lightning, St. Louis was an unknown quantity when Dudley signed him as a free agent in July 2000. Used the previous season by the Flames on a checking line, the right wing, like his new team, was full of untapped potential.

Compare that to Feaster's acquisition in January of Sydor, a well-schooled defenseman who brought maturity and experience and improved the team's credibility around the league.

"I thought it was a hell of a move by Jay," Tortorella said.

A hell of a move because it happened well before the March 9 trade deadline and gave Sydor 31 games to learn Tampa Bay's system. It also gave the organization a boost in the eyes of fans and its own players who were waiting for ownership to acknowledge and juice the effort coming out of the locker room.

And it was a steal as Tampa Bay unloaded to the Blue Jackets underachieving center Alexander Svitov. Sydor, on the other hand, brings the experience of three Stanley Cup finals, and a win with the 1999 Stars, to a team that has played just 11 playoff games since 1996.

"He has been through the grind of the playoffs," Tortorella said. "To have a guy like that in the locker room with our young core, the intangible of that is important. And he's a quality player on the ice."

It is no coincidence St. Louis and the Lightning have matured and improved at a similar pace and had their greatest seasons at the same time. A dynamic skater and stick-handler, St. Louis is the league's top scorer with 94 points and is a viable candidate for league MVP honors.

He also put the team on his back with a league-high 73 points on 32 goals and 41 assists since Dec. 8.

"He's our main guy," Andreychuk said. "I think one thing that Marty has that is special, is he takes a lot of responsibility on himself. He wants to put the team on his shoulders. When you see the little things he does - penalty kills; defensively he's as strong as anybody on our team - our whole bench rises with the level of play he has."

Epilogue

Agree or disagree with this list, you have to admit it's been a long, strange, exhilarating trip.

"It's been fun,' Feaster said, "being the guy on the bus going along for the ride."

[Last modified April 7, 2004, 11:23:20]

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