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Moving on with memories

Published August 6, 2005

Turns out, the cost of a goaltender was too high. Which means, around here, the value of memories are also on the rise.

So cherish the sound of 18,000 people singing Nikolai Khabibulin's name after a don't-blink save in the third period.

You'll not hear it again.

And hold tight to the memory of Lightning players embracing on the ice after the franchise's first Stanley Cup title.

That team no longer exists.

Khabibulin took the money and skated Friday, leaving behind an arena full of possibilities and aspirations that will never be quite the same.

And he leaves us with the impression that you and I wanted to see the Lightning go for another Cup more than he did. Sadly, the team that won a championship because it was so unselfish, has been undone by greed.

Not that I blame Habby. Chicago offered him a lot of money. Really, too much money to ignore. It's easy to wonder how many riches a man really needs, but I don't imagine many of us would walk away from an extra $5-million.

It is difficult, as well, to blame the Lightning. Khabibulin was an integral part of this team. Maybe, we'll eventually discover, an irreplaceable part. But he was not so dominant that the Lightning could risk tearing up the roster to fit him under the salary cap.

"We like our hockey team and we didn't want to blow it up," general manager Jay Feaster said. "Some teams are able to throw money around and attract players because they've not had success recently. So they were willing to jettison their own players. We're trying to keep our team together."

In the end, this day was not a complete shock. The Lightning had known since the introduction of the salary cap last month that the door to the locker room was going to be left permanently ajar.

Consequently, the front office had been preparing contingency plans long before the Blackhawks pulled up beside the net in a Brinks truck.

It's just that in the previous 24 hours, there had been some renewed hope in the Lightning family that Khabibulin might stay. That maybe he wouldn't get the megadeal everyone had once anticipated. That an offer of $5.5-million a year might be enough to lure him back.

Turns out, that hope was misplaced. As was my conjecture that the Lightning might pursue Khabibulin at the risk of letting Martin St. Louis go. (I'm still holding out hope for an alternate universe where I look really smart.)

Instead, Tampa Bay should be able to re-sign St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Dan Boyle. It should also be able to keep the payroll flexible enough to ensure Brad Richards, Pavel Kubina and Cory Sarich don't get away next year.

The price, however, is the Lightning should no longer be considered a Stanley Cup favorite. Few such teams are without a star goalie.

What the Lightning has is a very strong group of skaters, and a lot of hope that John Grahame is finally ready to tap into his sizable potential.

"From his perspective, this is a chance Johnny Grahame has waited for his entire life," Feaster said. "I am not concerned at all about being able to go deep in the postseason with Johnny Grahame."

The Lightning is placing a lot of faith in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Devils in 2003. That was the night John Tortorella benched a moody Khabibulin in favor of Grahame.

Grahame matched Martin Brodeur save for save for nearly two hours before the Devils ended the series with a goal in the third overtime.

The problem is Grahame has had moments like that before. He has also gone through periods of incredible inconsistency. The rap, both here and in Boston, was that he did not always prepare himself in the best manner possible.

Now, he'll have a chance to prove he is worthy of Tampa Bay's faith. Even so, Tortorella pulled him aside Friday and assured him the job would have to be earned because the Lightning is now shopping for a second goalie.

"I've seen him mature here and seen his game mature here," Feaster said. "I think it's a different John Grahame. I love what I see in his eyes."

The upside is Tampa Bay does not need Grahame to be Brodeur. He may not even have to be Khabibulin. With the money saved by Khabibulin's departure, the Lightning should be able to keep its core group of skaters together. And that group could potentially be even better as Lecavalier grows into his role as one of the game's elite players.

It's just disheartening to think we'll never again see the Lightning exactly the way the team looked that June night at the St. Pete Times Forum.

A breakup was bound to happen sooner or later. That's just the nature of sports. And it is the reality of the new NHL. You just hoped it could have been delayed a little bit longer in this case.

Unfortunately, Khabibulin saw riches.

And the Lightning saw the potential for trouble.

As for you and me?

We saw a memory pass before our eyes.

[Last modified August 6, 2005, 01:36:22]

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