Jay Feaster has been with the Tampa Bay Lightning since 1998 and became the team’s GM in 2002. The Lightning won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history in 2004. In Feaster’s first blog for THN.com, he recalls the club’s early lean years and how he became GM. In this entry he talks about the time leading up to the team’s first Cup victory and life in the salary cap world.
As far as building towards a Stanley Cup, former GM Rick Dudley, whom I took over for in 2002, already had gathered a number of the pieces, with goalie Nikolai Khabibulin being the biggest one. Rick had signed Martin St-Louis as a free agent. He had brought in Freddy Modin, so the pieces were already in place, and being able to smooth out the relationship between Vinny and John was huge (read my last blog for details). And then, being able to bring in Darryl Sydor before the trade deadline in 2004.
We had some success in 2002-03; we won the division and won a playoff round for the first time in franchise history – we beat Washington and then lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champs, the Devils, in the second round. I felt that, going into ’03-04, the one place we needed to shore up was our blueline and bringing in Sydor from Columbus…he was that missing piece. If you look at how the team played after the acquisition of Sydor, we were lights out. And Khabibulin was spectacular in the post-season…and the rest is history, as they say.
What I really remember vividly from the 2004 playoffs is we were able to deal with almost any style of hockey. You know, when teams tried to be physical and intimidating with us, like in the Philadelphia series (Eastern Conference final) and the Calgary series (Stanley Cup final), we were able to deal with that, we were able to withstand that.
It’s just the way the entire group of guys came together…you knew after the Montreal series (in the second round) that there was something special about this group. Sweeping Montreal, and wrapping up the series in Montreal, and…the game in which Vinny scored late to tie it with the stick-between-the-legs shot and then Brad Richards banks one off Jose Theodore in overtime…to win that and put us up three games to none, it was just a very special group of guys.
The real tragedy is we had basically the same team coming back the next season, with the exception of having to get Martin St-Louis signed at the end of 2003-04 and also having to get Jassen Cullimore signed…otherwise, we had the entire team coming back. We had an option for Khabibulin and we exercised that option – and then we ended up going into the lockout and losing the entire 2004-05 season.
And then coming out of the lockout, not only do we have to get Martin St-Louis re-signed, but now Lecavalier’s contract is coming up, Khabibulin’s is up, Richards was up the following summer, Danny Boyle’s contract was up and we’re faced with working out new deals for a lot of key guys all at the same time.
We had gone through significant stretches in ’03-04, and even ’02-03, where backup Johnny Grahame played a lot. You know, Grahame played some outstanding hockey for us when Khabibulin had kind of lost his way a little bit…“Grammer” was the guy who stood up and carried us for a while.
And so, as we looked at what the NHL landscape was for goalies and who we were going to end up losing, and whether we were going to pay Khabibulin and what he was looking for and what he ultimately got…We made the decision we were going to give Grahame the opportunity to start.
I’ve had people ask me, “Would you do things differently?” and I suppose, in hindsight, I might, but only from the standpoint of the personal ease of life, if you will – my life would be a lot easier if I could throw my hands up and say, “Hey, you know, we got the goalie we wanted,” because obviously the goaltending has been an issue here ever since that 2005-06 season.
And yet, having said that, if we had done it, the chances are Martin St-Louis wouldn’t be here and he’s one of the most dynamic players in the game. One of the greatest thrills in the game, I think, is watching St-Louis and Lecavalier play together.
It really was a very, very difficult decision (to let Khabibulin go and re-sign the ‘Big Three’ of Lecavalier, St- Louis and Richards). I wish those four guys could’ve been able to sit down in a room together and I could’ve said, “Here is the total pie, here is the total amount of money. You guys divide it up and come back to me and I’ll sign each of you however it works out.”
But that wasn’t the case and Khabibulin got a huge offer from Chicago and moved on in the summer of 2005.
The tough part is that Mr. Davidson, as our owner, made a commitment after winning the Stanley Cup that we were going to be a cap team, we were going to spend to the salary cap. Unfortunately, our reality here in Tampa is we don’t generate enough revenue to support that. The only year we’ve made money is when we won the Stanley Cup.
In 2004, we played 13 of a possible 16 post-season games at home and so that’s the one year we were able to show a profit. So, while the salary cap is going up, the reality is we couldn’t support the $39 million salary cap (coming out of the lockout in 2005-06), we couldn’t support a $44-million payroll (in 2006-07), and now it’s impossible for us to say, “Well, let’s take the payroll up to $50 million.”
From that standpoint, we’re back to where we were pre-lockout; that is to say, we have to try to make it work within a budget.
Jay Feaster has been with the Tampa Bay Lightning since 1998 and became the team’s GM in 2002. He will blog on THN.com throughout the 2007-08 season.