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Lightning 2001-02: Put up or . . .

President Tom Wilson includes himself in people who'd be in hot water without improvement.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2001


TAMPA -- As far as Tom Wilson is concerned, next season holds little margin for error for the Lightning.

Asked if Tampa Bay must make the playoffs, the president of Palace Sports & Entertainment, said: "You'd better be in the hunt.

"People have watched us build for two years. You don't know how long you can say "Hang in there.' "

But Wilson stopped short of saying general manager Rick Dudley, who is entering the third year of a four-year deal, would be held accountable if things didn't pan out.

"We all would be," Wilson said. "I think everyone who has been involved in the evolution would be. You can throw me into that mix, too."

Wilson addressed many topics before Thursday night's 4-3 overtime loss to the Rangers ended the Lightning's Ice Palace schedule.

He said financial considerations have forced Palace Sports to consider closing down or selling the IHL's Detroit Vipers. That would force the Lightning to find a new flagship minor-league team.

He said Palace Sports, which holds the lease for the Ice Palace, spoke to the NBA's Vancouver Grizzlies about relocating, but the Grizzlies decided the Tampa Bay area could not support another professional franchise.

Of the Lightning's season, Wilson said, "It's been sweet agony."

The sweet, he said, was watching the team win eight games in March, the most it has won in any month. The agony was watching a 24-game stretch in January and February in which the Lightning went 3-20-0-1.

"It was awful," Wilson said. "You second-guess everything."

But Wilson said he is convinced the Lightning is better than it was at the beginning of the season, and he applauded Dudley's acquisitions of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, forward Matthew Barnaby and defensemen Stan Neckar and Adrian Aucoin.

He said any free-agent acquisitions or trades Dudley presents during the summer will be met with "an open mind."

Wilson said he thinks player accountability preached by coach John Tortorella is the right approach.

As for the upcoming contract negotiations with captain Vinny Lecavalier, Wilson said, "I don't think anyone has any sense that Vinny will not be here for a very long time."

Wilson said the building process is "painful. But we had a lot of guys who were force-fed the NHL who have learned at a very high level. If we didn't make any moves in the off-season, we would be much much better."

Not that the Lightning will stand pat.

"You are going to see different faces," Wilson said.

DRAFT LOTTERY: The NHL will hold its draft lottery drawing Tuesday to determine the order teams will choose in the June draft. The drawing is for the 14 teams not in the playoffs. Because teams cannot move up more than four spots from their order of finish in the regular season, only the five teams with the lowest point totals can acquire the No. 1 pick. The Lightning is second-to-last with 59 points and has an 18.8 percent chance to win the top spot.

* * *

LIGHTNING FINALE: At Washington, 3 p.m. Sunday; Sunshine, WDAE-AM 620.

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