You'll have to pardon Lightning general manager Rick Dudley's
French, and not because he has a tenuous grasp of hockey's
unofficial second language. "After our first day of camp last
year, I looked at Ludzy and said, 'Holy s---!'" says Dudley, who,
like coach Steve Ludzik, is entering his second season in Tampa
Bay. "We had guys slotted as number 3 defensemen who were barely
good enough to be number 7s. We knew we needed a miracle to
Dudley and Ludzik did not prove to be miracle workers, as the
Lightning sputtered to its second consecutive 19-win season.
Through a dizzying series of acquisitions that has left just
eight players remaining from last year's opening-night roster,
Dudley has given Tampa Bay its fastest team in the franchise's
nine-year history. "We put a premium on speed, and it shows,"
New forwards Brian Holzinger, Mike Johnson, Martin St. Louis and
Todd Warriner can all burn, as can 20-year-old holdover Vincent
Lecavalier, the superbly talented third-year center who is the
heart of the franchise. That Lecavalier is the NHL's youngest
captain makes sense because, after speed, the Lightning has put
an emphasis on youth. Right wing Stan Drulia, 32, and mobile
defenseman Petr Svoboda, 34, are the only Tampa Bay players older
than 28. "I feel like an ooooooold man," said Svoboda, as he
surveyed the locker room last month.
Svoboda's mates on defense are especially green. Pavel Kubina,
Paul Mara, Cory Sarich and Andrei Zyuzin all range in age from 21
to 23. That's why the Lightning, despite its newfound speed,
isn't on the fast track to success. Last year Tampa Bay allowed
3.73 goals per game, second worst in the league, and it's likely
to again surrender too many goals to make a serious playoff bid.
Kevin Weekes, 25, who was picked up from the Islanders in the
off-season, will share time with 24-year-old Dan Cloutier in net.
The day before the Lightning broke camp this year, Drulia was in
the practice facility casually watching a public skate when a
young girl executed a flawless pirouette. "Did you see her
skate?" Drulia said. "Maybe we should bring her over for a look."
A year ago maybe. This season, at least, that pixie would have a
hard time winning a spot with Tampa Bay.
Last season the Lightning played 17 rookies, the most of any NHL
team. Defenseman Paul Mara, with seven goals and 11 assists, was
the only one of them to get as many as 10 points.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
FORWARDS 27 There are few scorers other than
DEFENSE 26 One of NHL's worst in its own zone
GOALTENDING 23 Time for Cloutier and Weekes to prove
SPECIAL TEAMS 25 Power play needs a quarterback
MANAGEMENT 27 Ludzik must get Lightning to be more