tampabay.com

Can he handle it?

John Grahame must prove, off the ice as much as on, that he's the Lightning's No.1 goalie.

By TOM JONES
Published September 19, 2005


BRANDON - Here comes John Grahame.

Hair slicked back and nipping at his shoulders. Scruffy two-day beard. T-shirt. Baggy shorts. Flip-flops. He already looks the part, so let's just get right to it.

The guy has been known to be a goof-off.

He has heard that before. He rolls his eyes, shrugs his shoulders, lets out a short laugh. It's hard to deny. He has been late on a few occasions, once for a team charter. Okay, so that was bad. But he didn't miss a game or practice because of it.

The rest? Sure, he likes to go out, but he wants to know who doesn't? And, he points out, he always has been in shape, and any time he has been called upon, he has played and played well. Hard to argue that. Look it up; many of his numbers over his Lightning career are better than those put up by Nikolai Khabibulin.

"From my perspective, as long as you showed up on the ice, that was what was important," Grahame said. "But as you get a little bit older, you mature, you're not as wild. Your focus is more toward the off-ice things, staying sharp."

Now he's about to enter a whole new world.

He's being called upon to do more than fill in for a game or two here and there. Now he's being called upon to go from backup to the No.1 goalie on the defending Stanley Cup champion. He's being asked to replace a legend in these parts, a goalie who won a Stanley Cup, a player Lightning coach John Tortorella calls "an elite, world-class goalie."

Whether he can likely will determine whether the Lightning can win another Cup.

"There have been some off-ice issues," Tortorella said about Grahame. "When I say "off-ice,' I'm not talking about drinking or drugs or anything like that. That is not what I mean. I'm talking about concentration about that position at all times. You need to conduct yourself as a pro at all times - in the room, on the ice, off the ice. I think we all know how hard he works and how hard he competes on the ice.

"I don't want this to turn into a "he's out all the time.' It's not that. It's being on time for this, being on time for that."

Tortorella still hasn't forgotten when he was about to hand the No.1 job to Grahame late in the Cup season before Graham missed a team flight. Khabibulin kept his job and the next thing anyone knew, Khabibulin was a Stanley Cup star.

But that was two years ago. That was when Grahame was a seldom-used part after coming over from Boston, where he spent his first four NHL seasons, in a January 2003 trade. He was a touch immature and, on occasion, just didn't know any better. Today is a different day. He's not a 20-something kid anymore. He turned 30 last month. And now he has a chance - "An opportunity I've waited for my whole life," he said - to be a star.

"I know I have a much greater responsibility," Grahame said. "You've got not only the on-ice responsibility, but the off-ice responsibility. There's a much greater demand and a lot of different aspects that come with it. You have to get into that zone. You're expected to play and you want to play well. You always got to be responsible because that's your job to be the backbone. If you're going to be playing all the time, you got to want that responsibility."

He also knows if he doesn't do the job, there's someone to take his place.

Sean Burke, a 17-year-veteran, was brought in to take Khabibulin's spot on the roster if not his spot in the goalie's crease. He's what general manager Jay Feaster calls a "professional." A reliable stopper who also has put up nice numbers over a long career, Burke adds a leadership quality to the Lightning. But that's not the lone reason he's here.

"Most of all we like his game," Feaster said. "Yes, we like his leadership and how he'll fit in here. He's a good character guy. But we wouldn't bring him in if he didn't have game."

Burke is, for the moment, an insurance policy. The Lightning would like nothing more than Grahame stepping into the No.1 role and keeping it for the next, oh, eight years. Tortorella said both goalies will see plenty of action, particularly because of a schedule crammed with games because of the Olympic break.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to be the man," Burke said before he even landed in Tampa for training camp. "I'm competitive. So, sure I want to play. But I'll do whatever they ask."

Grahame, however, has the inside track on the job. Call him 1A with Burke being 1B. Grahame is immensely popular among teammates, and Burke has been considered a good teammate everywhere he has played. But even Tortorella wonders if they can replace Khabibulin.

"Nik is an elite goalie," the coach said. "Do these two guys equal an elite, world-class goalie? Probably not right now. But they are good and we can win. ... I know every time we go on a losing streak, someone is going to bring up Nik Khabibulin. But he's gone, and we're happy with what we have."

He's happy with the change he has seen in Grahame. More important, he has confidence Grahame is taking his new role seriously.

"Johnny is in the best shape I've ever seen him since I've known him," Tortorella said. "I like him. I like his mental toughness. But that mental toughness can't just be in that locker room and on the ice. That mental toughness has to be outside those (arena) doors, too, and how you handle yourself."

Grahame admits, "You're never going to change completely. I don't think I'm a person that's ever going to go right home from the rink and kind of be a choir boy. I'm not trying to be that."

What he is trying to be is the No.1 goalie by being a star on the ice. The only way to do that is to be a professional off the ice. There already has been a change.

Once evasive of the media, Grahame has accepted the role of one of the team's spokesmen. He has fulfilled every media request - and there have been several a day - through the first week of training camp. He has been open instead of ornery, humorous instead of surly. Everyone in the organization has noticed he is one of the first to arrive for practices and one of the last to leave.

"You mature, you get a little older, you gain those experiences you've gone through and you learn from them," Grahame said. "All that helps in your decisionmaking process, and I think I know what it takes now.

"The most important thing is being responsible, and that's always got to be on top of your mind. And think about your decisionmaking and what you have to do to be successful. Do that and you'll have no problems."

If he can't do that, the Lightning's defense of the Stanley Cup might have plenty of problems.