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Now it's all up to the players

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001


TAMPA -- It is time to strip the Lightning to the bare bones. It is time to examine what really will determine whether this team makes a run at the playoffs or runs off another miserable 50-loss season.

Open the locker room door at the Ice Palace. See them sitting in the big room with the fiery red carpet that general manager Rick Dudley had installed because red is a "power color."

It's all on you, boys. It's all on the players.

Let's assume Dudley is correct, that the pieces he assembled with the league's lowest payroll are good enough to make the playoffs. And let's assume that new coach John Tortorella is the right guy to kick-start the development of Tampa Bay's youngsters.

If all that is true, the players have no more excuses.

As Dudley said after Steve Ludzik was fired as coach: "Some players have to look at themselves and say, "I didn't play or work as hard as I could.' "

It's not hard to figure out who is struggling. If you haven't seen a game in a while or haven't checked the stats, check out the midseason report card. Or you can listen to Tortorella, who has been brutally honest in assessing his players.

Center Vinny Lecavalier has been anointed as one of the NHL's next superstars. He is tied for the team lead in points. But he has one goal in his past 15 games and, going into Thursday night's matchups, was a league-worst minus-20.

"Vinny is going through something, a little adversity," Tortorella said. "How he gets through this will make him a better player. Vinny just has to realize his No. 1 priority is how he plays for this hockey team."

Lecavalier's name is on top of the list because he is high profile and because of the expectations put on him. But he is by no means alone.

Forward Todd Warriner has one goal in 23 games. Mike Johnson, one of the team's best forwards in November, has one point in 12 games.

Defenseman Andrei Zyuzin is touted as a freewheeling playmaker. We are still waiting to see it consistently.

Defenseman Pavel Kubina loves offense and has seven goals (five on the power play), but Tortorella wants defense to be his priority.

Forward Wayne Primeau is 6 feet 3, 225 pounds. He should be rockin' people out there. Same for 6-4, 210-pound defenseman Paul Mara.

Tortorella calls Tampa Bay's general lack of physical play one of its greatest shortcomings.

Here's another: the lack of a strong veteran presence in the locker room.

Hockey is about emotion and passion as much as skills and systems. The Lightning players are close-knit. They are friendly. But when the going gets tough, who is going to yell and scream like John Belushi's Bluto in Animal House to rally the troops and get in someone's face when necessary? "We have plenty of people who can do that," Dudley said. "They just don't know it yet."

Forward Stan Drulia pulled a leadership move by calling a team meeting Jan. 4 after an 8-3 fiasco in Ottawa.

"I just wanted everyone to realize we're not out of this thing yet, but if we let it slide any further, it will be over," he said.

Drulia knows the drudgery of being out of the playoffs by February.

"I want to come to the rink in April and have something to play for," he said. "I don't want to come and just play for a paycheck. It's not too late, but we're running out of time."

Tortorella said leaders will emerge as players begin to talk more about what they do on the ice. That's why he encourages dialogue when the team gets together to study game videos.

He wants practices to be structured but fun. He wants the players to hang around in the locker room after practice and have pizza.

"You don't win in this league if you don't create passion in the locker room," Tortorella said. "And it doesn't come from the coaches. It has to come from one another.

"It's all on the player to play a little bit but do it in the framework of the team."

Midseason report card

With the season half over, it's time for midterm grades. Players were evaluated by Times Lightning writer Damian Cristodero against expectations coming into the season. It is not a pretty picture. The team has improved over last season, but it still has a long way to go. Players need not have a parent or guardian sign their report card.

(Player, Gr.,Comment)

GOALIES:

Dan Cloutier C+ Played well despite inconsistent use.

Kevin Weekes B- Provided single-handed wins; rebounds sometimes a problem.

DEFENSE:

Jassen Cullimore B Plus-5 and has learned to hit.

Maxim Galanov D Seems to lack energy; little physical presence.

Sergey Gusev Inc. Lingering knee injury held him to seven games.

Pavel Kubina C- Leads in minutes; must make defense, not offense, priority.

Paul Mara C- At 6 feet 4, 210 pounds, must play bigger.

Craig Millar C- Hits were few and far between before injury.

Cory Sarich C Most improved player after stint in minors; most powerful hitter.

Petr Svoboda C- Improved after slow start; then lost to concussion.

Andrei Zyuzin D+ Must expand physical game, provide consistent offensive jump.

FORWARDS:

Kas. Astashenko Inc. Played 11 games.

Stan Drulia C Steady; good influence in the locker room.

Kyle Freadrich Inc. Averaged 3:32 in 13 games.

Brian Holzinger C- Switch to center may provide spark.

Mike Johnson C- Smart; needs to be more physical, provide offense, leadership.

Ryan Johnson B- Great grit and leads team in hits; if he could just score more.

Sheldon Keefe C- Fearless; struggled with spotty playing time and line changes..

A. KharitonovC- Lots of energy but very saveable shot.

Vinny Lecavalier D+ 1 goal in past 15 games; league-worst minus-20 is inexcusable.

Fredrik Modin B+ On pace for 40 goals; strong on his skates.

Wayne Primeau D+ Good on faceoffs; spotty otherwise; has to be more physical.

Brad Richards A- NHL's leading rookie scorer; has a brilliant passing touch.

Martin St. Louis B- Great speed; started slowly but spark grew with playing time.

Todd Warriner D One goal in past 23 games and minus-14.

MANAGEMENT:

Rick Dudley C- Best team $17-million could buy; needs more veteran presence.

John Tortorella Inc. Tough love approach already has won players' respect.

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