tampabay.com

Well ... Lightning does get a goalie

But Riku Helenius, taken with the 15th pick, won't be the starter GM Jay Feaster still seeks.

By TOM JONES
Published June 25, 2006


VANCOUVER - Lightning general manager Jay Feaster came to the NHL draft looking for the bona fide No.1 goalie the team last season lacked, the chief reason it sputtered in its defense of the Stanley Cup and was demolished in the first round of the playoffs.

He leaves still looking for that goalie.

The Lightning picked up a goalie, all right. For the first time in its history, it selected a goalie in the first round of the draft. Finnish goalie Riku Helenius, taken with the 15th overall selection, could someday be the Lightning's starting goalie. But the starting goalie for next season likely remains employed by another team.

"Don't despair and think we're not going to solve our goaltending," Feaster said. "We are. Don't look at this as the only opportunity. This is the first real opportunity to (make a trade) once the season ends. But it's not the only one. And I think some of the things we've discussed, some of the conversations we've had here, I think may still bear fruit."

Feaster worked the telephones Thursday and Friday and roved the draft floor on Saturday looking to pull the trigger on a deal that would land the Lightning a top-notch goalie.

The rumor mill churned out names such as Anaheim's J-S Giguere, San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov and Columbus' Marc Denis. There continue to be murmurs that the Lightning is chasing after Roberto Luongo, who was traded from Florida to Vancouver late Friday but might not be interested in signing a long-term deal with the Canucks.

For now, however, the Lightning's opening in goal remains unfilled.

"We're still talking," Feaster said. "I think there are still opportunities even before July 1 to do something."

Free agency begins July 1, and that opens another slew of options, including unrestricted free agents such as Edmonton's Dwayne Roloson, Carolina's Martin Gerber and Montreal's Cristobal Huet.

"I'm still optimistic that we're going to find a solution," Feaster said.

Meantime, the Lightning's selection of Helenius was a surprise. Its system is chock full of goalie prospects, including Gerald Coleman (age 21), Jonathan Boutin (21) and Karri Ramo (19). In addition, the Lightning recently signed European goalies Johan Holmqvist and Fredrik Norrena.

So what gives? Why would the Lightning take a goalie?

As Lightning director of player personnel Bill Barber told Feaster: "(Goalies) are as tough to find as hen's teeth."

Helenius was the highest-rated goalie on the Lightning's list and was ranked among its top 10. TSN had Helenius ranked 24th on its draft list. He was rated fifth among European goalies by the NHL's Central Scouting.

The Lightning fell in love with his size (6 feet 3, 202 pounds), quickness and poise.

"Very poised in the net," goalie coach Jeff Reese said. "Our scouts really liked him, and we were excited that he was still there."

Feaster said he talked with "three or four" teams about moving down in the first round and even out of the first to pick up additional picks. But the Lightning didn't hesitate to take Helenius when it was its turn to pick.

"His mind-set as much as anything is something we really admire," Feaster said. "We think he is very mentally tough. And when you combine that with his skill package, we think he is going to be a very good goaltender. We felt this kid was too special to pass up."

Helenius, a butterfly goalie who said he grew up admiring legendary goalie Patrick Roy, appeared excited by joining the Lightning.

"It's a great moment for me," Helenius said. "It's exciting to (think) about playing for Tampa Bay in the future. My goal is to win a Stanley Cup."

But it will be a while before Helenius is in a Lightning uniform. He has two years left on his contract in Finland and likely cannot come to North America until 2008. He appeared in 26 games with Ilves of the Finnish junior league with a 2.68 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage.

Feaster said the system's logjam in goal merely gives the Lightning assets to use in trades. Perhaps even in a package that will land the No. 1 goalie it needs and Feaster says he will get before the start of next season. Even if it didn't happen as he had hoped in Vancouver.

"This doesn't mean it can't happen or won't happen," Feaster said. "We still are looking, and we will solve it."