Risk could be compensated with more banners

Published August 25, 2005

Be forewarned. Somewhere around Nov. 28, 2010, the bill may arrive. Someday may come.

Be concerned. That game on Feb. 11, 2009, is in danger. The future might catch up.

Be aware. On April 26, 2008, the rent may come due. All accounts may be settled.

Tomorrow, the Lightning may pay. Tomorrow, the latest contract may look too long, too lucrative. Tomorrow, you may be vexed about tomorrow.

For today, however, the Lightning looks pretty good, doesn't it?

The Lightning gripped present tense with both hands Wednesday when Martin St. Louis signed a swallow-hard, grab-the-calculators, worry-about-the-future contract. It is hard to say which figure was more staggering, the $31.5-million promised or the six years over which it will be paid.

As signings go, this one was pricey, and it was popular, and it was proper.

Also, it should be said, this one was risky.

The Lightning has just agreed to pay a 30-year-old player a large portion of its payroll for a very long time. Yep, there is a gamble there, all right. The Lightning is gambling impact vs. diminishing skills, rule changes vs. fan apathy, right now vs. forever. The franchise is betting that it can continue to contend right now, and tomorrow isn't too big an ante.

Frankly, bully for the Lightning.

Forever, this has been an area where we have heard too much about patience and not enough about tonight, too much about the calendar and not enough about the stopwatch. The Lightning spent most of its existence talking about somedays. For years, the Rays have said the same. Recently, the Bucs have found their old notes on the subject.

So let me get this straight:

You're worried about what may happen in 2010?

Oh, this was a lot of money, all right. Consider that in its Stanley Cup season, the Lightning had a $33-million payroll; they have just promised one guy $31.5-million. When it came into being, the Lightning cost $50-million as a franchise fee; considering St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier, the team has just paid two guys $59-million. No wonder general manager Jay Feaster felt a little light-headed Wednesday.

Take a second. Can you imagine Art Williams' reaction? I think he just gave birth.

Regardless, this was grand news for the franchise. Had the Lightning not negotiated successfully with St. Louis, it might have gotten loud and it might have gotten ugly. It might have ended with St. Louis demanding a trade or signing a short-term, chip-on-your-shoulder contract. It might have drained the chemistry out of a locker room where St. Louis means a lot.

"When I sat in my office and looked at the line board," Feaster said, "I kept seeing that gaping hole on the right. Modin, Richards and a blank space. There is not another player in our system, not another player who is out there as a free agent or you could trade for, who would fill that gaping hole. When I say Marty is the heart and soul of this team, that's not hyperbole or blowing smoke up his backside."

Risk No. 1: Can St. Louis be another Dave Andreychuk, still excelling as his birth certificate yellows?

It's a legitimate question. How is St. Louis, a guy who depends on speed, going to play at 34, at 35?

"I'm not worried about that," Feaster said. "When you look at most 30-year-olds, there is a lot of wear and tear on them. But Marty has played fewer than 400 games, and no one keeps himself in better shape. I think Marty will still be an outstanding player and a key contributor."

Risk No. 2: Is there going to be room for anyone else to sign a big contract?

Feel free to consider Brad Richards, for instance, whose contract comes up next season. If Richards gets, say, $6-million a year, that means the Lightning would be paying $19-million a year to three players, almost half the available salary cap.

"I think we can keep him," Feaster said. "Is it going to be easy? No. But I know Brad wants to be here long term. I know Pavel Kubina wants to be here long term. I know John Grahame wants to be here long term."

Risk No. 3: As the league MVP, how much of a marked man will St. Louis be? And how much wear-and-tear will he have?

For Feaster, a lot of this comes down to the new rules. Is the league going to be strict about allowing the skaters room to move?

"If they are, Marty will be a great player not only until he's 35, but until he's 40. If we're serious about opening it up, if we're not going to let the 35-year-old guys tackle and clutch and grab, I don't think it's a concern at all."

Risk No. 4: What if the NHL fans are apathetic?

Put bluntly, the Lightning could use a new popularity in hockey which, in turn, would boost the salary cap.

"We are now the greatest cheerleaders in the league for seeing that every building is sold out every night," Feaster said. "If we're not right about this sport taking off again, if in fact the revenues go the other way, it's very risky."

Risk No. 5: The Lightning has to be awfully, awfully smart about the contracts to come.

In the years ahead, there will be difficult decisions. Does Vinny Prospal get another year after this one? Darryl Sydor? Already, it is evident the system produces no middle class, that the stars will be paid well and the fill-in players will scramble for what is left.

Eventually, perhaps it all catches up to the Lightning.

Ask yourself this, though. If you could guarantee yourself three years, four years of contention with some rebuilding to follow, would you take that deal? Darned right you would. Think of this as a draft-picks-for-Gruden deal.

Does tomorrow catch up to the Lightning? So what? Eventually, gas will be $5 a gallon and Adam Sandler will be president and the hole in the ozone will be the size of Roseanne.

Why worry about the future?

By then, the Rays will be in the World Series. Won't they?