tampabay.com

Lightning wants new No. 1 goalie

By trade or free agency, Feaster seeks a "bridge" to Karri Ramo.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
Published January 31, 2008


TAMPA - Lightning goaltender Johan Holmqvist said he always is searching for answers to a season of sharp ups and downs.

Rookie Karri Ramo said he still has lots of work to do learning positioning and finding a "middle ground" between being patient in net and aggressive.

Jay Feaster, though, has decided there is no time to wait.

In the midst of a third straight season of goaltending woes - Tampa Bay is last in the league with a 3.32 goals-against average and an .880 save percentage - the general manager said he will look this summer for a No. 1 either through trade or free agency.

"Oh, yes," he said. "We have to build a bridge from where we are right now to when Karri is ready to legitimately carry the ball. There is no question about that."

It is the first time Feaster publicly set that agenda, and it comes in the midst of a 7-13-3 stretch that has sunk Tampa Bay to last in the East and threatens its streak of four straight playoff berths.

How this affects Holmqvist; whether Ramo matures in the NHL or minors; how the Lightning pays for a top goalie and if it will have to trade a top player to clear payroll apparently still is being worked out.

And looming over everything is the slow-moving, proposed sale of the team by Palace Sports & Entertainment to Hollywood producer Oren Koules.

"We have a lot of things to talk about internally," Feaster said. "Clearly one of them is there needs to be a sale consummated so we can talk about the budget and everything else. Until we know where we're going, it's a little bit premature to look at all that. We don't have any definitive answers yet."

Tampa Bay hasn't had a definitive answer in net since Nikolai Khabibulin helped win the 2003-04 Stanley Cup before bolting to the Blackhawks as a free agent.

Handing the job to John Grahame in 2005-06 didn't work. Trading Fredrik Modin for Marc Denis in July 2006 was a huge misstep. And while Holmqvist, who has played 38 of 51 games this season, has been spectacular at times, he has been maddeningly inconsistent.

His 2.99 goals-against average entered Wednesday 37th among 43 listed goalies. His .890 save percentage was 41st.

He also is a potential unrestricted free agent and could end up as trade bait if the Lightning falls out of the playoff race.

"No, no," Holmqvist said when asked if he thinks about the Feb. 26 trade deadline. "I'm for the moment. I take one day at a time. I can't walk around thinking what everybody else is. I'm trying to take care of myself. ... I still think I'm a good goalie."

Some good goalies are potential unrestricteds. The most attractive: Montreal's Cristobal Huet, 32, who is 18-8-5 in 31 games with a 2.26 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.

Washington's Olaf Kolzig, who turns 38 in April, and Colorado's Jose Theodore, 31, also could be unrestricted. And it is known Chicago at least floated the idea of trading Khabibulin back to Tampa Bay.

In Ramo, 21, the Lightning sees a potential No. 1, but his time, as Feaster said, is "down the road."

The team loves his athleticism and attitude. But with a 2-7-1 record, 3.37 goals-against average and .884 save percentage in 11 games since his Dec. 19 call-up, there is work to do.

"He's still just a young kid," Feaster said. "He needs to get experience doing certain things. There are certain situations that will happen in a game because ... he is young and because he's overly aggressive at times."

"As a goalie, I still feel like I'm trying to find my way," Ramo said. "It's an everyday job. It takes a lot to do good."

And the Lightning has no more time to wait.

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