By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 2001
Not long ago, the Lightning tried to unload defenseman Jassen Cullimore. Now he is a player the team apparently can't do without.
Cullimore signed a three-year, $3.7-million deal Monday that not only kept the sides out of arbitration but effectively bought out the first two seasons in which Cullimore could have become an unrestricted free agent.
"You get some security," said Cullimore, who will make about $1.044-million next season, $1.211-million in 2002-03 and $1.4-million in 2003-04. "I like the way things have gone here and the way things look for the future. It would be a shame to be here for four years and to go through all this and not be around to help work it all the way through."
Cullimore, 28, acquired in January 1998 off waivers from the Canadiens, had a goal and six assists this season, but he earned his new contract by becoming Tampa Bay's best defenseman. He led the team with 186 hits, was second with 114 blocks and was third among defensemen with an average ice time of 19:42.
He also was a noteworthy minus-6 on a team that gave up 280 goals, third worst in the NHL.
That's quite a turnaround for someone who played 46 games for Tampa Bay in 1999-00 and was demoted to the minors. Cullimore was exposed in last year's expansion draft and September's waiver draft but was not taken. "Jassen proved a lot to this organization the way he's handled himself the past couple of seasons," said assistant general manager Jay Feaster, who negotiated the deal. "We know what he does when the chips are down. ... We talked about that we did not want to lose him to unrestricted free agency."
Cullimore said the hard work has just begun: "My desire to play well wasn't about a contract situation. It was about showing people I was able to do it and maybe proving some people wrong. It was about pride and going out to do the best you can and not wanting people to doubt you, and that will always be there."
It doesn't quite qualify as the start of negotiations between Vinny Lecavalier's agent and Feaster. Still, the sides met for about an hour Friday in the Lightning's offices at the Ice Palace, taking the first tentative step in forging Lecavalier's new contract.
Tampa Bay's captain could become a restricted free agent July 1, when his three-year deal that paid a base salary of $975,000 expires.
"It was just a very basic kind of introductory "Hi, how are you' kind of session," agent Kent Hughes said. "Nothing concrete or substantive was done. We didn't get into any specifics."
Hughes was accompanied by Mitch Frankel, president of Impact Sports of Boca Raton, which represents Lecavalier.
Hughes dealt with Feaster when the Lightning's chief negotiator was president of the AHL's Hershey Bears and vice president of Hershey Sports & Entertainment. Hughes said they get along well.
Frankel and Feaster had not met.
"I'd like to think the most substantive thing was that both sides agreed not to talk to the media about this," Feaster said, laughing.