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Payroll snip could cut to core
A budget crunch threatens a "window of opportunity."
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published April 24, 2007
TAMPA - The catchphrase around the Lightning offices and locker room Monday was "window of opportunity."
Coach John Tortorella was asked about it while discussing a roster he said has "four of the best players in the NHL" in forwards Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Brad Richards and defenseman Dan Boyle.
General manager Jay Feaster used it in reference to the budget crunch the team may face.
"I concur we have a very good core here," Feaster said. "It's a core capable of winning a championship. So from that standpoint our window of opportunity is still open. That's something we'd like to take advantage of."
The question is, will Bill Davidson, owner of Lightning parent company Palace Sports & Entertainment, provide the money to acquire a No. 1 goaltender and a scoring wing, the biggest holes on a team eliminated Sunday from the first round of the playoffs for the second straight season?
Feaster said his preliminary budget for next season is $40-million. That is about $4-million less than this season and could be up to $9-million below the yet-to-be-set league salary cap.
Coaches and players said this is no time to pull back, though CEO Tom Wilson said Palace Sports will lose $9-million on its Tampa operation this fiscal year.
"It would be foolish to spend less," St. Louis said. "You have a lot of key elements of a championship team. Add a player here or there, we could be right there. If they go the other way, what kind of message does that send?"
"If we don't progress now in adding pieces to what is a really good core," Tortorella said, "you can spin in the wrong direction and not recoup for a number of years, so timing is everything."
Indeed it is, as Boyle has just one season left on his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent and hitting the jackpot.
And as St. Louis, 31, said, "I'm not getting younger. I want to win. The guys want to win."
It is a tight squeeze. Tampa Bay has $33.46-million tied up in nine players and a final payment on the buyout of the contract of former captain Dave Andreychuk. That leaves $6.4-million to fill out the roster, and there already is speculation the team may have to trade one of its stars to free some room.
That isn't lost on Lecavalier, who, as of July 1, will be the only of the four without a no-trade clause.
"I do worry," he said. "I read articles, too. But I think they want to keep the core guys together. Having a great defenseman and guys like Richie and Marty, you don't see that everywhere. But it's a new cap world."
A key could be how the team handles goalie Marc Denis, the former No. 1 who did not dress for the playoffs. A trade would remove $2.8-million from the payroll.
Tampa Bay could buy out the $5.9-million remaining on the last two years of his contract. In a buyout, which has to be done from June 15-30, two-thirds of the total is paid and the cap hit is spread over double the remaining length of the contract.
In Denis' case, the $3.93-million would be over four years, meaning Tampa Bay would be on the hook for about $982,000 per season.
Whatever happens, the Lightning needs a No. 1 as it seems to have decided Johan Holmqvist is better suited as a backup.
Look for the team to investigate cheaper free agents, perhaps Dominik Hasek or Curtis Joseph, as short-term solutions. Feaster is more likely to trade prospects and draft choices for a forward.
Whatever the dynamic, a larger payroll would help, something Feaster will discuss with Davidson in the near future.
"I do have a game plan," Feaster said.
Said Tortorella: "What cuts do is cut into your core. It's pretty scary what core you're talking about. It's one of those top four guys. I'm not telling the owners what to do. I'm speaking as a coach."