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Questions abound, but answers may take time

Today, for the first time since the morning skate before Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup final, the Tampa Bay Lightning will practice.

By TOM JONES
Published September 14, 2005


After two days of physicals and conditioning tests, the Lightning starts its preseason workouts in earnest today with scrimmages and practices as it prepares to begin its defense of the Cup.

But even the Cup champions have issues. Here are five burning questions as the Lightning's defense gets under way:

Who will be the No.1 goalie?

It's the camp's $64,000 question, but the answer might not be very satisfying.

Whenever Wild coach Jacques Lemaire, who has alternated goalies in Minnesota, was asked who his No.1 goalie was, he would smile and say, "My No.1 goalie is whoever is playing the next game."

That likely will be the Lightning's approach now that it has lost elite goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, with John Grahame and Sean Burke likely to split time.

"We have 19 back-to-back games this season, so we will play both goalies a lot," Tortorella said. "You know me, whoever is playing well is who we will go with."

Burke has a history of injuries, and the Lightning would love to see Grahame establish himself as the No.1 on his way to becoming a world-class goalie. In an ideal world, Grahame will play 60-some games and play well. Burke would offer a solid 20-some games.

But don't be surprised if it ends up more like a 45-35 split, especially if Burke can stay healthy.

Who will be the sixth defenseman?

Five defensemen are set with Dan Boyle, Pavel Kubina, Darryl Sydor, Cory Sarich and Nolan Pratt. That leaves one opening. The prospects with the inside track on the sixth spot are Mike Egener, Doug O'Brien, Todd Rohloff, Timo Helbring and Paul Ranger.

The guess, however, is the player who will be the last defenseman isn't in Lightning camp yet. Look for the Lightning to scan the waiver wire and sift through the free agents still available.

The Lightning is willing to give the job to a prospect, but would much rather go with a player who has significant NHL experience.

Will the Lightning keep only 20 players?

Probably. But general manager Jay Feaster dismisses the claim that 19 of the 20 roster spots are set. During Monday's team meeting, he warned players to not get lazy thinking there is a sweater with their name on it waiting in the locker room.

He also said Tuesday that if a player performs so well in camp that the Lightning simply can't live without him, the team could add a 21st player to the opening-night roster.

What's the team's biggest worry?

Injuries. Let's face it, the Lightning got lucky during the 2003-04 Cup season. It didn't suffer one major injury. The worst thing that happened was Boyle missing four games during one stretch. It's hard to imagine having that kind of luck again.

Camp is two days old and already the team is keeping an eye on Brad Richards (abdominal surgery in January), Ruslan Fedotenko (hip surgery in April) and Fredrik Modin (back spasms). The problem is the Lightning no longer has Eric Perrin and Shane Willis to pull up from the minors. Depth could turn out to be an issue.

Will it be in position to win the Cup again?

Its chances are as good as any other team's. The new rules, particularly the crackdown on obstruction (which the NHL says will be absolutely, positively, no-kidding-this-time enforced) should help an offensive team such as the Lightning.

The offense is loaded and the defense, even with the losses of Jassen Cullimore and Brad Lukowich to free agency, remains solid. The question is goaltending. If the new rules do create offense, the goalie's position could be more important than ever.

If Grahame and/or Burke can step up, the Lightning has a chance.