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Organization on the move

Lightning leaders say big trade shows club's seriousness about winning.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


TAMPA -- Coach John Tortorella likes that the Lightning acquired the negotiating rights of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin.

He likes it from a hockey standpoint because if Khabibulin signs and Kevin Weekes continues to improve, he said Tampa Bay could have one of the league's better goaltending tandems.

Tortorella also likes the perception it creates. He knows the investment Lightning owner Palace Sports & Entertainment is apparently willing to make -- about $4-million a season -- will be noticed.

"I think it sends a message to the team," Tortorella said after Wednesday's practice at the Ice Palace. "They are willing to step up and pay and make the move to make the team better and more competitive. And that's an important message."

"There's no doubt about it," forward Brian Holzinger said. "It looks as if management and the organization is certainly trying to make a commitment to try to put some pieces in place here to really make a run at making the playoffs next year. As a player, that's what you want to see."

Payroll is a tricky thing on which to get a handle, especially when you consider two-way contracts that pay much more on the NHL level than the minors. The Lightning also will get some insurance money back on the $2.2-million injured defenseman Petr Svoboda was to make this season.

But if Khabibulin signs and that salary is added to the $850,000 of defenseman Stan Neckar, who also was acquired from the Coyotes, the payroll goes up $3.1-million. That's because the Lightning traded Mike Johnson's $1.05-million contract and Paul Mara's $687,000 deal. Here's another view. Khabibulin's $4-million salary is nearly 25 percent of the $17-million payroll with which the Lightning started the season.

The team gained about $1.6-million when it obtained Matthew Barnaby ($1.1-million) for Wayne Primeau ($525,000), and Adrian Aucoin ($1.6-million) for Dan Cloutier ($660,000). Previous trades of Bryan Muir and Steve Martins saved money, but bringing up Nils Ekman and Kristian Kudroc from the minors cost money.

Palace Sports & Entertainment president Tom Wilson said the decision to add salary does not signal a change in philosophy.

"I think it's a change in opportunity," he said.

But there is no doubt a record that didn't reflect expectations, and the realization that fans might not stick around if they didn't see improvement, helped prompt the moves.

Said Wilson: "We have to show people that a) we care, b) that we are committed, and c) that what we said when we came here, we obviously meant."

That was that things would be different.

And to an extent, they are. After some discussion, the Lightning rejected an old bugaboo of going after older, expensive veterans by shunning Panthers defenseman Lance Pitlick. The 33-year-old was there for the taking but makes $1.9-million, way too much for what he offers.

It has enough depth on defense that it felt it could part with the once highly touted Mara.

The Lightning is 3-3-1 in seven games entering tonight's matchup with the Hurricanes at the Ice Palace. Weekes is 3-2-1 in his past six with a 1.80 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage. And one more victory ties last season's team total of 19.

Little steps. The next big one is acquiring a power forward. Whether it happens before Tuesday's trade deadline or over the summer is to be seen, but Wilson expects general manager Rick Dudley to make a move.

That's good from a hockey standpoint.

"I think you're always looking for a power forward," Barnaby said. "A guy who can score goals in and around the net. That's important."

And because of the perception it creates.

"These guys are serious," Wilson said of what he'd like the fans to think. "They did mean what they said, and we'll give them a chance."

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