tampabay.com

Return to Lightning pleases Lukowich

The 30-year-old defenseman, who previously played for Tampa Bay in 2002-04, signs a three-year deal.

By BY DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published July 4, 2007


To say Brad Lukowich is pumped to be back with the Lightning is an understatement.

Consider that one of the first things the defenseman said he did Tuesday after signing a three-year, $4.7-million contract was ask old friends in the Tampa Bay area to start looking for houses.

He text-messaged former defensive partner Dan Boyle with the news.

And he went out of his way to assure Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella, with whom he occasionally butted heads his first time in town, his game has "matured" and his focus is to "be smart" on the ice.

"We love the team. We love the area, " said Lukowich, speaking for wife Cara and daughters Michaela, 4, and Marley, 3 months. "We're on our way."

The Lightning feels that way, too. With Cory Sarich lost to free agency and negotiations with Nolan Pratt at such a standstill he might leave, the team needs to fill out its blue line.

Lukowich, who played with Tampa Bay from 2002-04 and last season developed into one of the Devils' better defenders, was the biggest catch. But also signed were free agents Jay Leach and David Schneider.

Leach, 27, captained AHL Providence last season, and the 6-foot-5, 219-pounder, with two goals and 128 penalty minutes in 73 games, has a shot at being a sixth or seventh defender.

Schneider, 27, played the past four years in Finland and more likely is headed for AHL Norfolk.

"And we're not done, " general manager Jay Feaster said of adding defensive depth. "But now, we're a whole lot better off bringing in a guy who knows us and who we know."

That would be Lukowich, 30, whom Feaster said he pursued since Sunday's start of the free-agent signing period and who will make $1.25-million next season, $1.65-million in 2008-09 and $1.8-million in 2009-10.

"He can block shots and he's tough to play against, " Feaster said. "He hacks, he whacks, he does what he has to do."

Feaster said he did not want to lose Lukowich after 2003-04 but could not match the $1-million offered by the Islanders.

"We missed him, " Boyle said. "We're happy to see him back."

Lukowich was sent to the Devils in 2005-06, and last season had four goals, 12 points, 36 penalty minutes and was plus-1 in 75 games while averaging 20:13 of ice time. In 11 playoff games, he was plus-2 and averaged 19:57.

"And he's at an age, " Tortorella said. "I really believe defensemen come into their own in their late 20s, so I think we have him at a good time in his career."

Lukowich believes that, too.

"More than anything, I've matured, " he said. "I know where my game is. I've matured to the point I can read the game better."

Lukowich had career highs of five goals and 19 points with the Lightning in 2003-04. He got his name on the Stanley Cup but was benched in the last three games of the final.

"And now I'm going back to Tampa, " he said. "I have to do what I can do and don't give them an opportunity to not let me play in Game 7 this time."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.