NEW PLAYERS 8
NEW RULES HELP
BETTER THAN '03-04? NO
With so many Lightning players boosting their market value during their 2003--04 Stanley Cup run, the new salary cap could have quickly forced the champs to dismantle. Yet except for goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin who signed with the Blackhawks, Tampa Bay's core of brilliant young players--forwards Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis--is intact and committed to repeating. "I want to play with these guys, and I love Tampa," says Lecavalier, the 25-year-old franchise player who could have become a free agent in '06 but instead signed a four-year, $27.5 million contract.
Who could blame him? After winning the title, Lecavalier became a video-game cover boy and joked with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. Artists built a replica Cup out of sand at St. Pete Beach and painted a 40-by-60-foot commemorative mural in downtown Tampa. In June 10,000 fans packed the St. Pete Times Forum to celebrate the anniversary of the Lightning's Game 7 defeat of Calgary, even though the players couldn't attend because of the lockout. Now the hottest ticket in Tampa is to the lottery of 1,000 seats that the team has set aside for the Oct. 5 banner-raising ceremony.
The Lightning used only 27 players in '03--04, most of whom had developed their skills as Tampa teammates. Though Lecavalier's Aug. 14 signing left the team little room under the cap for free agent St. Louis, the reigning MVP accepted a six-year, $31 million offer one week later. "Tampa was always my first choice," he says. Left wing Dave Andreychuk, playmaking defenseman Dan Boyle and finals hero Ruslan Fedotenko also took less money to stay put.
Still, Khabibulin was a significant loss; 30-year-old John Grahame, the likely No. 1 goalie, has appeared in only two playoff games. But that doesn't faze G.M. Jay Feaster. The club's signings, he says, "speak volumes about how far we have come and how bright our future is." --Brian Cazeneuve
Pavel Kubina and Dan Boyle need to log a lot of ice time and stay injury-free to stabilize a vulnerable defense.
Martin St. Louis
• ALL CAPS denotes new player