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Don't dim the spotlight


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2001

Give Rick Dudley credit.

The general manager said he was going to make a trade, and 10 days later, Matthew Barnaby was acquired from the Penguins to replace the dead weight that was Wayne Primeau.

Give credit also to owner Palace Sports & Entertainment for allowing Dudley to add $525,000 to Tampa Bay's payroll by trading Primeau's $575,000 salary for Barnaby's $1.1-million.

Give them credit, but don't let either off the hook. Dudley should deal again, and Palace Sports has to further shed its Ebenezer Scrooge image.

At the very least, Palace Sports must show it has as much interest in rebuilding the team as it does refurbishing the Ice Palace, into which it has poured about $7-million.

Yes, we understand that when you factor in bonuses, the Lightning's payroll is in the $22-million range, and the scouting budget has jumped to more than $2-million.

We also understand Tampa Bay has some million-dollar, minor-league talent in Detroit.

But you know what? Every team pays bonuses, and every team deals with escalating rookie salaries. It doesn't change the fact the base payroll started the season at a league-low $17-million.

You get what you pay for (except if you're the Rangers).

That is not a knock on the Lightning players. Most are working hard and committed to getting better. And despite a recent 10-game losing streak, there are significant signs they will.

On the other hand, how much longer will fans wait, especially with the team on track to lose 51 games, including overtime losses?

It would be Tampa Bay's fourth consecutive 50-loss season; its second since Palace Sports president Tom Wilson gave every indication during a meeting with season ticket holders that things would be different.

The fans are not slacking on this arrangement. Average announced attendance of 15,122 is 11.2 percent ahead of last season.

One more significant trade would be a sign of good faith. Dudley said trades are made only to address hockey considerations. But the team does not operate in a vacuum.

A better team means better attendance, and that means more concessions and advertising. And a team that competes for the playoffs doesn't have to sell some of its upper-deck seats for $8.

Dudley's position is difficult. To get something, you have to give, and there is a lot of upside to this team Dudley wants to keep. That is especially true on defense, which, thanks particularly to big improvements from Jassen Cullimore and Cory Sarich, is miles ahead of where it was at the start of the season.

But that doesn't mean another veteran or two wouldn't offer stability while the youngsters develop.

A scoring forward would take the pressure off Vinny Lecavalier (when his fractured left foot heals), Brad Richards and Fredrik Modin. Another polished defenseman could be a calming influence when the kids lose their cool and positioning.

Untouchables should be few. The three forwards above are no-brainers. Underachievers such as Todd Warriner, Mike Johnson and Paul Mara should beware.

Adding Barnaby was a good start. Dudley thinks the 27-year-old can score, but his physical presence on the ice and emotional presence in the locker room may be his most valuable assets.

There is talk the team still is interested in Panthers defenseman Lance Pitlick, who can be had for a song. But he is 33 and makes $1.9-million, too much for what he offers.

A more valuable asset would be 27-year-old Vancouver defenseman Adrian Aucoin, who makes $1.6-million and is there for the taking. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder is solid defensively.

The Canucks need a goaltender. If the Lightning likes Dieter Kochan as much as it says, it should trade Dan Cloutier. That is a tough sell. Dudley gave up the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft for Cloutier and will want significant payback to let him go.

But what are the consequences if he stands pat?

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