By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 24, 2001
SUNRISE -- The bar has been raised.
Tom Wilson, president of Lightning owner Palace Sports & Entertainment, said Saturday that much more will be expected of the Lightning next season.
How much was abundantly clear.
"If we're not playing meaningful games in March, it will be a failed season," Wilson said while watching the NHL draft from Tampa Bay's suite at National Car Rental Center.
"I hate to say that because it's pretty graphic, but I think Rick (Dudley, general manager) will tell us that's where we are. If that's not the case, then there's a problem."
Wilson also said that by heightening expectations with the acquisition of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and a blueprint that Wilson said includes the likely acquisitions of a veteran defenseman and a gritty or scoring forward, Dudley also has raised the bar for himself.
Wilson said if the team struggles, and assuming there are no catastrophic injuries or other mitigating circumstances, "Rick would be the first to say, "I have to look at myself in that situation.' "
But Wilson also was adamant he thinks Dudley has been on the mark with his plan for the team's emergence, and his job is secure.
"We don't have any doubt as far as the job Rick does," Wilson said. "He has our 100 percent support."
Dudley is in the third season of a four-year contract. There is an option for a fifth season that automatically kicks in if Tampa Bay makes the playoffs next season or in 2002-03.
"We expect to improve significantly," Dudley said. "That's what we're hoping for, to play meaningful games in March."
As for any pressure from ownership, Dudley said recently, "Nobody has told me that we have to do anything except improve, and that's what we intend to do.
"We're 12 points better than we were two years ago, and we'll be whatever number of points better this year. If that takes us to the playoffs, that's great. If it takes us close to the playoffs, that would be good. If it takes us somewhere in the 70-point range, we're still improving and going in the right direction."
Ownership seems ready to lend more of a helping hand. Dudley was hamstrung to a large extent last season by a $17-million base payroll. Only the expansion Wild paid less.
Wilson said payroll will be 40-50 percent more next season. That brings it in the range of $25-million. Not a fortune, but at least Dudley has some room to maneuver.
The general manager has been creative in freeing up salary money. His recent trades of Todd Warriner, Alexander Kharitonov and Adrian Aucoin saved about $2-million.
"He's exposing himself a little bit," Wilson said of Dudley's moves. "But I know any general manager worth his salt would do that."