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Cap crunch might make St. Louis odd man out

Published August 5, 2005

Three Lightning stars.

Two long-term contracts.

One question.

Whom do you keep?

It is the argument you never wanted to hear. The debate that must eventually be resolved but will never really be won.

One week into free agency, it is looking more and more as if the Lightning will not have enough salary cap space to keep everyone in Tampa Bay.

There are too many other roster spots still to be filled, and too many other free agents in the coming year that must be addressed. Straining the cap may be mathematically possible, but highly improbable.

So I ask you:

Vinny, Habby or Marty?

Do you say goodbye to Vincent Lecavalier, the franchise's cornerstone? Do you kiss off Nikolai Khabibulin, the enigmatic goaltender? Or do you bid farewell to Martin St. Louis, the NHL's Most Valuable Player?

There is no perfect answer and no simple-to-defend choice. Instead, there is just a rational chain of deductions.

And they seem to suggest St. Louis as odd man out.

Heresy? Maybe. But look at it logically.

Lecavalier is 25 and, quite possibly, on his way to becoming one of the NHL's most dominant scorers. For the next 10 years, he could be the player the team is built around. He has to be Tampa Bay's first priority.

That leaves a choice between St. Louis and Khabibulin. And that choice essentially comes down to positions.

In the past 25 years, how many teams have won a Stanley Cup without an elite goaltender? You might say two. Or you could argue four.

But the most accurate answer is this:

Not many.

So do you sign Khabibulin for whatever he demands? No. As good as he was in the postseason, he still can be infuriating during the long haul. He is not Martin Brodeur. He is not Patrick Roy of the 1990s.

But maybe the Lightning won't have to overspend to keep Khabibulin. Lots of teams have been throwing money around this week, and Khabibulin has not signed. That suggests no one targeted him as a must-have acquisition. Where it once seemed like it would take crazy money to bring him back, that may not be the case.

Which brings us to St. Louis, who is 30 and at the peak of his career. He may have another terrific season in 2005-06. Maybe the next season, too. But, eventually, his size will become a liability. He will always be tenacious, he will always be dedicated, but he's not always going to be quick enough.

It sounds plausible, doesn't it? The idea of letting St. Louis walk as a restricted free agent actually makes sense from a business and scouting point of view.

Except, of course, real life is never that simple. The Lightning did not build a Stanley Cup champion by relying only on scouting reports and highlight clips. It didn't spend more money or collect far more talent.

The Lightning won because the players bought into John Tortorella's concept of a team being greater than the sum of its parts. It won because it worked harder and smarter than every other team. It won because it had heart.

And no one epitomized those qualities more than St. Louis.

So what kind of a message would it send if the front office chose Khabibulin and Lecavalier ahead of St. Louis? It would not, you could safely say, play well in either the locker room or the bleachers.

But I'm not sure there is a better choice. And that includes trying to squeeze all three players under the cap.

These are not six-month decisions, they are six-year decisions. The Lightning has an opportunity to be a contender well beyond this season, so everything must be done with an eye toward the future.

If the cap is maxed out with long-term deals this month, what does that mean next season when Brad Richards, Pavel Kubina and Cory Sarich are looking for new contracts? What does it mean for Dan Boyle, who still isn't signed?

The only way this works for all three is if someone takes a deeply discounted deal to stay in Tampa Bay. The Lightning has been pushing the idea of keeping a Stanley Cup roster intact, but no one is biting so far.

Frankly, I don't blame the players. St. Louis, as the defending MVP, will never have a better chance to make more money. Not to mention, he was underpaid in his last deal and missed a year's salary to the lockout. He should feel no obligation to sign for less than his market value.

Now, maybe St. Louis will consider a one-year deal and become an unrestricted free agent in 2006, but he'd risk possible injury or slump.

The bottom line is there is no easy escape. Particularly for GM Jay Feaster, who has seen all his previous plans destroyed by the lockout.

Sign Lecavalier and St. Louis, and the Lightning will have too much money invested in forwards and not enough in the net. Sign Lecavalier and Khabibulin, and Feaster will have let the team's heart and soul walk away without a fight. Sign all three, and he may doom Tampa Bay to salary cap prison for years to come.

No answer is completely satisfying.

One is just less painful than the rest.

[Last modified August 5, 2005, 01:08:13]

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