Tampa Bay ships Mara, Johnson to Phoenix, now must sign holdout goalie.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001
Lock two guys up in a car for five hours and things get done.
Lightning general manager Rick Dudley and Coyotes general manager Cliff Fletcher made the drive from Phoenix to Palm Springs, Calif., on Monday morning for the general managers meetings.
When the trip was completed, so was the framework of a five-player deal that brought the negotiating rights to goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to the Lightning late Monday.
"The car ride was tough," Fletcher said. "There were times Rick wanted to open the door and throw me out, but I think we made one heck of a deal."
"This is a big step for us," Dudley said. "The Tampa Bay Lightning rode Daren Puppa to its most successful season (the 1995-96 playoffs). That was because he was a brilliant goaltender. You just can't get there without it.
"All we're trying to do is ensure the fact that we have fine goaltending. That's what this whole deal is about."
Dudley said he has no plans to trade Kevin Weekes, who has held the No. 1 job since early December. But the plan is clearly for Khabibulin, 28, who has not played in almost two years because of a contract dispute, to take over the top spot.
"Nik's a goaltender who's done it, and that's the difference," Dudley said. "Nik has been an elite goaltender. He was considered one of the top five or 10 in the league, and that was important."
Which means Weekes likely will have to accept a diminished role.
"Let's hope he looks at it like we look at it, that it's the best thing for this hockey team," Dudley said. "We think we have as good a tandem as there is in the NHL. If we do, then our fortunes will change dramatically."
The Lightning also acquired defenseman Stan Neckar, who played for the Seantors in 1998 when Dudley was general manager. Tampa Bay gave up defenseman Paul Mara, right wing Mike Johnson and right wing prospect Ruslan Zainullin. It also gave up the second-round pick in the June draft acquired from the Islanders last year in the Weekes deal.
The Lightning still has a second-round pick acquired from the Canucks in the deal for Dan Cloutier.
Tampa Bay beat seven other teams bidding for Khabibulin, including the Rangers, Thrashers and Blackhawks.
The Lightning and Khabibulin do not have a contract. That means Tampa Bay acquired only his rights as a restricted free agent. Khabibulin had been asking the Coyotes for a three-year, $12-million deal.
If Khabibulin receives that kind of money, it would represent almost 25 percent of the $17-million payroll with which the Lightning started the season.
"We knew that going in," Dudley said of the price tag. "(Lightning owner Palace Sports & Entertainment) made the commitment because we all feel this makes us better. It's very important that the fans see that commitment, and they felt that, too."
As for contract negotiations, Dudley said there have been preliminary discussions with Khabibulin's agent, Jay Grossman, and he doesn't expect a problem.
"We're not going to try and screw him, and he, I don't think, is going to try and screw us," Dudley said.
Said Coyotes co-owner Wayne Gretzky: "The number Nik was throwing out was respectable, but we couldn't bite the bullet. It's good for him, but we had to better our hockey team."
If there is a risk, it would appear to surround Khabibulin's readiness to play because he has not played this season. He played for Long Beach of the IHL last season and was named co-MVP.
Dudley refused to characterize the move as risky.
"He's an elite goaltender. He hasn't played since last year, but they just don't lose it, I don't think," Dudley said. "He's a very gifted athlete. He's very quick. He was and will be one of the top goaltenders in the game. Seven other teams didn't think it was a risk. I don't think it is a risk at all."
Khabibulin, who could not be reached for comment, is 126-113-30 with a 2.75 goals-against average, 21 shutouts and a .908 save percentage. In 1998-99, his last season with the Coyotes, he was 32-23-7 with a 2.13 goals-against average, eight shutouts and an outstanding .923 save percentage.
Neckar, 25, is 6 feet 1, 214 pounds. He has two goals and two assists in 53 games and is minus-2.
The Lightning gave up more potential than anything.
Johnson has 11 goals but two in his past 37 games. He was important to the Coyotes because of forward Claude Lemieux's ankle injury.
Mara, the Lightning's first-round draft pick in 1997 (seventh overall), was sent to the minors Feb. 13. He was minus-17.
Zainullin was a second-round pick (34th overall) in last year's draft.
"I had heard some rumors, so I wasn't totally shocked," Johnson said. "It would have been nice to be part of the rebuilding, but that's not the way it worked out."