The team's captain goes to the Sabres for three players and a pick.
By TOM JONES
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2000
TAMPA -- Lightning general manager Rick Dudley said he never shopped captain Chris Gratton but the Buffalo Sabres made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
The Lightning pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade early today, sending Gratton and a second-round pick in the 2001 draft to the Sabres for forwards Wayne Primeau and Brian Holzinger, defenseman Cory Sarich and a third-round pick in this summer's draft.
"We got three players that we believe will be three key pieces of the puzzle for us," Dudley said. "Yes, we gave up a key piece of the puzzle, but we feel we got three important pieces. Primeau is a big, strong guy who suits our need as a perfect third-line center. Holzinger is one of the fastest guys in the league. And Sarich, we truly believe, is going to be a top-four defenseman in this league for a very long time."
The trade ends days of speculation that Gratton would be traded and ends his second stint with the Lightning. Drafted third overall in 1993, Gratton played four seasons with the Lightning before signing with the Flyers in the summer of 1997.
After a season and a half in Philadelphia, Gratton returned to the Lightning midway through last season in a trade. He was named captain in November and was third on the Lightning with 41 points.
"We didn't make this trade because we wanted to trade Chris Gratton," Dudley said. "We made this trade because we felt we could improve our hockey club. This wasn't about getting rid of Gratton, it was about acquiring three important pieces to the puzzle."
Primeau, known for his two-way play, has five goals and seven assists in 41 games. Holzinger, a former 20-goal scorer, has seven goals and 17 assists in 59 games. Sarich has four assists in 42 games.
Rumors over the past several days suggested Gratton might be traded to the Rangers, but Dudley said the Sabres deal was the only one he seriously considered.
"We thought long and hard about this, I can assure you," Dudley said. "We talked about this all day (Wednesday) and all day (Thursday). We discussed it thoroughly. It wasn't a trade we took lightly. But we certainly feel we are a better team now. And I think this trade will work out well for Buffalo because Chris Gratton is a good hockey player.
"But we just felt this gets us closer to where we need and want to be."
Gratton leaves the Lightning ranked in the team's top five in games (404), goals (88) and assists (148). Thursday, Gratton addressed the trade rumors and said he hoped to stay in Tampa Bay.
"You hear rumors all the time, but you can't let them get to you," Gratton said. "When you sign an NHL contract, you agree to go to wherever a team wants to send you. And if something happens, well then, I will go. But I hope to stay because I've been through a lot with this organization and I want to remain here."
The move signals a changing of the leadership guard with the Lightning. Vincent Lecavalier now likely will become captain. Lecavalier filled in as captain while Gratton was recently sidelined with a foot injury. During that time, Lecavalier played what may have been the best hockey of his two-year career.
The Lightning is making a last-ditch effort to sign the All-Star defenseman, who is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, before Tuesday's trade deadline. The Lightning and Svoboda's agent, Doug Messier, have exchanged contract proposals the past two days in the most serious negotiations to date
Still, a trade is on the horizon if the Lightning can't cut a deal in the next day or two.
"And to be honest, we've pretty much reached our limit in terms of negotiations," Dudley said.
"If we get a no (deal) now, I don't know if we can do any more. We've made a substantial offer, a serious offer. And we're not just making an offer to say, "Well, we tried to sign him.' This wasn't a token offer. I think even they would say it's a serious offer.
"Our preference is to re-sign him, but if we can't do that, then we have to look at Plan B."
Plan B would be a trade.
Over the past few weeks, at least eight teams have shown interest in acquiring Svoboda. The most serious teams are believed to be St. Louis, Philadelphia, Buffalo and Toronto, the latest team to enter the sweepstakes. In return, the Lightning would rather get young players than draft picks.
"Both sides are working hard, and progress is being made," Messier said. "Progress has been made all through this. This thing could all go down very quickly. But I think there's still a lot of work to do, and we may not be able to get to the end result."
Messier received the latest Lightning proposal Thursday afternoon and was expected to be back in touch with the team today.
The holdup in negotiations may be over the number of years of the deal. The Lightning would prefer to give Svoboda, 33, a two-year deal; Svoboda is seeking three years. He is making $1.5-million this season and probably wants at least $2-million a season.
"I think I will still be a good player in three years," Svoboda said. "If I can't play before my contract is over, I would walk away, quit. I don't want to play if I can't help a team. But I believe I will be just as good in three years."
The Lightning wants to keep Svoboda not only for his play on the ice, but for his contributions off it.
He is one of the team's few veterans, a leader in the locker room, and a mentor to fellow Czech defenseman Pavel Kubina, as well as young defensemen Paul Mara and Ben Clymer. The only reason Tampa Bay has considered trading him is that it fears losing him to free agency for no compensation.
"We have said all along that would we like to keep Petr," assistant general manager Jay Feaster said.
HERBERS TRADED: The Lightning also made a minor deal Thursday, sending 32-year-old defenseman Ian Herbers to the Islanders for a seventh-round pick in this year's draft.
Herbers, signed as a free agent last summer, appeared in 37 games with no points and 45 penalty minutes. The Islanders are looking for defensemen to expose in this summer's expansion draft, which will be used to stock new teams Columbus and Minnesota.