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Is Lightning's window closing?
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
Published October 4, 2007
TAMPA - Marty St. Louis did not want to hear it. Said he hadn't even thought about it.
It was difficult to believe the elephant in the middle of the locker room was so easy to ignore, but the Lightning right wing insisted.
It has never," he said, "crossed my mind."
Tampa Bay opens its 15th season tonight against the Devils at the St. Pete Times Forum with real questions about what it will look like in its 16th.
The biggie: Is this the last season four of the league's best players - St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle - are together as a group?
"If you want to think about that, go ahead," St. Louis said. "It's not something we're going to think about."
But general manager Jay Feaster admitted, "The clock is ticking."
And perhaps only a deep playoff run can postpone the alarm.
It is just business. Lightning owner Palace Sports & Entertainment, which claims losses of at least $76-million since it bought the team and the Times Forum lease in 1999, is projecting apreplayoff operating loss this season of $5-million to $7-million.
The red ink is the main reason it is trying to sell for about $200-million to Absolute Hockey Enterprises.
And bigger bills are coming for a team that already pays its Big Four a combined $24.6-million of a $46-million payroll.
Boyle, one of the league's top scoring defensemen, could be an unrestricted free agent after the season. If he comes back strong from wrist surgery, his salary could go from $3.625-million to at least $6-million.
Lecavalier, one of the game's top players, already making $7.1-million, could be unrestricted after 2008-09.
Then there is the bad taste of the past two seasons in which Bill Davidson, who owns Palace Sports, spent to the salary cap and saw his team bounced from the first round of the playoffs.
"It doesn't compute," Feaster said. "It doesn't pay for itself. That's important whether it's Mr. Davidson or Absolute Hockey (in charge). You keep the group together and you're willing to spend money on payroll if there is a return."
That is why this season is so important.
If the team goes deep in the playoffs, revenue will increase as, presumably, will the impetus to keep the Big Four intact. If it falls out of the playoff chase, there could be pressure to cut costs and rebuild by trading high-priced talent.
"It's nice to have three great players ... plus (Boyle)," ESPN analyst and former Kings coach Barry Melrose said. "But if you can't win, maybe you have to make a move.
"Does moving one make you better? With three great players, you probably make the playoffs. But is that what you're selling to your fans? ... They want to see their team take a run at the Stanley Cup."
And that, the players said, is their focus.
"We put pressure on ourselves to win, not for people to keep us," Lecavalier said. "Our goal is to win and not think about outside distractions."
Still, he added, "We love the organization. It's out of our control, but it would (stink) if anyone had to leave."
Boyle was the last of the four to come aboard when he was acquired from Florida in January 2002. Tampa Bay went 27-40-11-4 that season, third in the Southeast Division. Two years later, it won the Stanley Cup, and it has made the playoffs four straight seasons.
"You make it sound like it's past tense," Richards said of their time together. "We don't think like that.
"We grew up together. We weren't considered anything when we first came in. We're happy to be together, and we won a Stanley Cup together. We think there's more out there for us, and that's the fun part."
Lightning vs. Devils: 7:30 tonight, St. Pete Times Forum, TampaTV/radio: Sun Sports; 620-AM