End the delusion, the Lightning is not close

The scores are no longer important. The standings mean even less.

Published January 16, 2008

TAMPA - The scores are no longer important. The standings mean even less.

For too long we have been lost in the day-to-day travails of the Lightning. Hoping, wishing and praying in something we probably understood was a lie. It is time, finally, to face the truth.

The Lightning is great no more. It is not even particularly good. And until the organization recognizes that and starts adjusting accordingly, this devotion to mediocrity will continue.

For heaven's sake, there is no funk to snap out of. This is not a slump that needs busting. Not after two-plus seasons, five goaltenders and more losses 106 than victories (104). This is reality, and it's ugly as sin.

This franchise has gone from the top of the game to the bottom of the conference with the relative speed of a Marty St. Louis breakaway. How in the world did this happen? How could it have gone so wrong so quickly?

Actually, it has been deceptively simple. And maddeningly underestimated.

Some factors have been beyond the team's control, and others have been the fault of Jay Feaster's front office. It began as misfortune and grew exponentially worse with a series of miscalculations and misguided attempts to hang on. One mistake leading to another, and all of them leading to last place.

We could argue minor deals and details all afternoon, but I'll offer four critical signposts along the way.

-No.1: From the moment the Stanley Cup was won, the Lightning was in decline. It shouldn't have been that way. Not for a young team that was just discovering how good it could be.

But the end of the 2003-04 season was also the beginning of the NHL lockout, and no team was hurt more by the labor mess than Tampa Bay. It wasn't just that a season was lost, but that the NHL chose to count that lost season against player contracts.

That meant, instead of St. Louis being the team's only critical free agent, the Lightning had Vinny Lecavalier, Nikolai Khabibulin and St. Louis all heading toward free agency. At the time, I wrote the NHL's decision may have just destroyed a Stanley Cup champion.

I wish it had been hyperbole.

-No.2: The Lightning never planned to be in the position it is today with so much money tied up in three offensive players. If Lecavalier, Khabibulin and St. Louis could not all be squeezed under the team's salary cap in 2005-06, the Lightning was willing to swallow and allow St. Louis, the league's reigning MVP at the time, to walk away.

Except the Blackhawks sabotaged that plan.

Tampa Bay offered Khabibulin $5.5-million a season in a multi-year contract, and probably would have gone a little higher if negotiations demanded it. But the Lightning never got the chance when the goaltender took a deal from Chicago for $6.75-million a season over four years.

Now Feaster was in a bind.

He'd just lost a Stanley Cup goaltender, and was in danger of losing the league MVP too. It is easy for me to say today, but Feaster probably should have taken the heat and allowed St. Louis to leave. Instead, he gave him a six-year, $31.5-million deal.

St. Louis has earned his keep since signing the contract, but the decision doomed Tampa Bay to have a higher percentage of its payroll tied up in three players (Lecavalier, St. Louis and Brad Richards) than another team.

Worse yet, it was three offensive players.

-No.3: The Lightning was wrong about John Grahame as Khabibulin's replacement. That mistake was important in 2005-06, but it did not necessarily doom Tampa Bay for the future.

That was the next goaltender's fate.

Knowing the Lightning could not afford another season with such uncertainty in the net, Feaster traded Fredrik Modin to Columbus for goalie Marc Denis. Three days later, Denis signed a three-year, $8.6-million deal.

And it is difficult to overstate how much this blunder has cost the Lightning.

Two years later, there is still uncertainty in the net. Modin is no longer here to score goals or serve as trade bait. And the millions wasted on Denis have eaten into the salary cap, and the profits of a low-revenue team.

-No.4: For a couple of years, we were captivated by the sudden rise of an exciting new roster of players. And for a couple of years after that, we were preoccupied with trying to fix the problem the lockout and salary cap had caused.

And, during all that time, we'd hardly noticed the Lightning's farm system had gone barren.

Some of it was simply bad scouting, and bad choices in the draft. Some of it was the necessity of trading draft picks during the Cup run. And some of it was the desperation of trying to patch plugs in a quickly sinking ship.

The bottom line is the Lightning has gotten virtually nothing from nearly a decade of drafts.

On the current active roster, there are no No.1 picks from 1999-2007. Nor are there are any second-round picks. Or third-round picks. That's an astonishing waste of potential talent.

The Lightning has surely made some poor choices, but it has also been too quick to trade away picks in the vain hope of a few more victories.

When those trades help a team win a Stanley Cup - as the Ruslan Fedotenko, Darryl Sydor and Cory Stillman deals once did - you pat the general manager on the back and praise him for outsmarting the league.

When those trades leave a team in last place, and with no immediate hope for the future, you point at the general manager and tell him he screwed up.

And that's where we are today.

Lamenting a team that has fallen from grace, and picking apart the decisions that brought us here.