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Lightning could be shaken to the core

Published July 11, 2005

Soon, the leaders of hockey will stand before you.

They will smile a lot while telling you how sorry they are. They will talk of the future while making promises they are not likely to keep. They will tell you they may have lost a season but, by gosh, they have saved a sport.

Under no circumstances will they tell you this:

They may have destroyed a Stanley Cup champion.

A minor casualty, I suppose, when you are discussing the longest period of sustained lunacy in North American sports. Still, I have to say, it's a trifle annoying. Perhaps even a tad infuriating.

Make no mistake, the impending agreement between the NHL and the players association is, ultimately, a good thing for the league. The NHL had gotten too big, had allowed salaries to grow too far beyond its means. So this correction, while costly, was a necessity.

And the Lightning, as a low-revenue team, needed the protection of a salary cap as much as any franchise.

It's just, in the short-term, we may get hosed.

Mind you, nothing is official. The NHL has yet to acknowledge any of the various reports detailing the new collective-bargaining agreement. So, if the Lightning is lucky, today's alarm is misplaced.

But if the whispers are true, if the league treats contracts as if the 2004-05 season was played, the Lightning roster may never be the same.

Because, you see, Nikolai Khabibulin will have become an unrestricted free agent. So too will Dave Andreychuk and Tim Taylor. Vinny Lecavalier will be a restricted free agent. He will be joined by Ruslan Fedotenko, Andre Roy, Dmitry Afanasenkov, Martin Cibak, Brad Lukowich, Nolan Pratt and Dan Boyle.

And, oh, yeah, Martin St. Louis was already a free agent.

More than half the team could, potentially, be without contracts. And, presumably, most of the GMs in the league will be trolling for interest.

"Lately," Lightning general manager Jay Feaster said, "I've been losing a tremendous amount of sleep."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Lightning had been built for the long-term. It was a young team. A team with, perhaps, even better days ahead.

If last season had been played, Tampa Bay would have returned virtually intact. Cory Stillman was gone, but Vinny Prospal was back. And, yeah, Jassen Cullimore had left, but he had been injured through much of the playoffs.

St. Louis was the only free agent of any consequence and the Lightning would surely have wrapped him up. Feaster probably would have started working on some other long-term deals for future stability.

Instead, it might all come crashing down at once.

And, even if the Lightning wanted to spend wildly to keep the roster together, the salary cap will probably prevent that.

Ironic, isn't it? All these years, Tampa Bay owners have told us how important things like cost certainty and salary caps were for the future of the franchise. And now that the day is here, it will come back to bite them.

The Lightning has eight players under contract for the 2005-06 season. If, as has been widely reported, the players agree to a 24 percent rollback of salaries, those eight players will eat up about $15-million of cap space.

That would mean, depending on the actual size of the salary cap, the Lightning would have somewhere between $22-million and $25-million to sign at least a dozen players. Including the mega contracts of St. Louis, Lecavalier and Khabibulin. If the collective-bargaining agreement works out that way, you can be assured that not everyone will return to Tampa Bay.

"If we are faced with something like that, it will be a matter of prioritizing to keep the core of the team together," Feaster said. "You look at core positions. Core personnel. You take age into account.

"As far as we were concerned, we had the same team coming back to defend the Stanley Cup championship. Our goal is still to defend that championship. We'd like to be able to keep that entire team together."

Feaster's priorities would seem to be obvious. Given the importance of a goaltender, he must first figure out how much it will take to keep Khabibulin here. St. Louis and Lecavalier can probably count on early calls, as well.

Beyond that, Feaster will need to start looking at the defense. Given Dan Boyle's prominence on power plays, he will likely be a priority. From there, Feaster will have to start picking and choosing.

Part of the sales pitch will be that players already know they have a good thing going here. They won one Stanley Cup, and could win another if they do not allow greed to get in the way.

That pitch may work on veterans such as Andreychuk and Taylor, but it could be a harder sell on younger players who just lost a year's salary.

The problem with speculation is no one knows exactly what the market will look like under a new collective-bargaining agreement. Will there be a new class system, with superstars getting $10-million a year while everyone else gets low-balled? Or will salaries gravitate toward a middle ground? Will it be a buyer's market, or will everyone tend to his own house?

We should know more in a few days. If, as expected, the agreement is announced this week, we'll have a better idea of whether the Lightning will be scrambling to keep the roster intact.

It took a long time for Feaster and John Tortorella to put this team together. It'd be a shame if it fell apart when we weren't even watching.

[Last modified July 11, 2005, 01:01:12]

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