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Pressure is on for Lightning prospects

In a search for a sixth defender, Tortorella hasn't been impressed in the camp's first week.

By TOM JONES
Published September 15, 2005


BRANDON - They've come from all over for a chance to grab the final precious spot on the defending Stanley Cup champions.

There's a guy from Switzerland and another from Newfoundland. One toiled through four years of college, eight years in the minors and a couple of brief stints in the NHL to get this chance, while another is attending his second NHL camp.

The past two No.1 picks might open some eyes.

The job is so wide open, the Lightning has all but posted a classified ad:

WANTED: Sixth defenseman. No experience needed. Minimum salary: $450,000.

"It's there for the taking," general manager Jay Feaster said.

But there's a problem. So far, the Lightning doesn't see anyone good enough to take it. Feaster likely will go outside the organization to find the sixth defenseman.

"Right now, after the first (few) days of camp, our sixth defenseman is not here," coach John Tortorella said. "We still have 21/2 weeks."

It's 21/2 weeks, four more days of scrimmages, seven preseason games and plenty of practices for a prospect to impress the Lightning brass. But Tortorella and Feaster don't sound optimistic.

"You always hope you get it from within your organization, but I tell you right now, it's not going to be given," Tortorella said. "I'm not going to (lie to) you, we're looking. You're always looking for the best possible guy. If it doesn't come from us, we'll go outside."

As the regular season gets closer, other NHL teams might be forced to waive a veteran defenseman. Feaster is scanning the wire every day. Perhaps there's a free agent willing to play for the minimum salary ($450,000). Feaster is on the telephone every day.

The Lightning is willing to put its top four defensemen up with any team. Dan Boyle adds offense and power-play skills. Pavel Kubina is a nice blend of offense and defense. Cory Sarich is physical. Darryl Sydor is a veteran leader. All are reliable in their own end.

With the losses of Jassen Cullimore and Brad Lukowich to free agency, Nolan Pratt jumps from being the sixth or seventh defenseman to No.5, a spot the Lightning is comfortable with after Pratt played so well in the 2004 postseason.

In the meantime, a handful of players within the organization are hopeful they can find their games before Feaster and Tortorella find someone else.

"It's on everybody's mind," said Doug O'Brien, the sixth-round pick in the 2003 draft. "You just hope to go out and do your job, play your own game, do as well as you can."

O'Brien is one of five players in camp with legitimate hopes of the sixth spot. Todd Rohloff is the only one with NHL experience, having played 75 games for Columbus and Washington in 2003-04. But he missed most of Tuesday with back spasms.

The other hopefuls:

Mike Egener, the second-round pick in 2003 who spent last season in Springfield of the American Hockey League.

Paul Ranger, the sixth-round pick in 2002 who also played in Springfield last season.

Timo Helbling, who played in his native Switzerland last season and has drawn nice reviews from Feaster in the past.

Andy Rogers, the 2004 No. 1 pick, and 2005 No. 1 pick Vladimir Mihalik are in camp, but still are a season or two away from serious consideration.

Still, all of the above are dreaming of a spot.

"You really don't want to put it in your head," O'Brien said. "Everyone is here battling for that spot and they're going to pick whoever is playing the best, I assume."

Not necessarily after what Tortorella and Feaster have said.

Now for the scary part. What if a defenseman gets injured?

"I'm not sure we have a seventh defenseman right now," Tortorella said. "But you have to worry about a sixth defenseman before you worry about a seventh."

The way things are at the moment, the Lightning has plenty of worries when it comes to a sixth defenseman.