Lightning's move shows they're looking to rebuild -- quickly
It's one thing for new ownership to promise to be aggressive in landing top-notch talent, especially in the wake of a disastrous season. It's quite another to deliver.
And while the clock is still ticking toward the start of the free-agency period on July 1, the brash new owners of the Tampa Bay Lightning are already causing a stir in NHL circles.
The Lightning announced Saturday they acquired the exclusive signing rights to rugged power forward Ryan Malone and veteran leader Gary Roberts, both of whom played in Pittsburgh this past season. If the Lightning can sign Malone, the Penguins will receive either a third-round draft pick in next summer's draft; if they can't, the Penguins will receive a fourth-round pick acquired from Dallas at the trade deadline in February.
Malone, who had a breakout season with 27 regular-season goals and 16 postseason points as Pittsburgh advanced to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1992, is expected to test the free agent waters July 1. But by acquiring his exclusive rights, part-owner Oren Koules says the Lightning will get the chance to make their case without having 28 other teams banging on the door.
"I just didn't want us to get lost in the shuffle," he told ESPN.com. "I think we have a lot to offer."
Malone is at his summer home in Minnesota, and the Lightning will use the next couple of days to gauge his interest. "He didn't say no [at this stage]," Koules said.
The move is an interesting one as the new ownership group -- which includes Koules, a Hollywood movie-maker whose credits include the popular "Saw" movies, and former NHLer Len Barrie -- continues to put its stamp on a team that finished last in the standings last season.
The team recently hired former agent Brian Lawton, who used to represent Malone, as vice president of hockey operations and hired former ESPN analyst Barry Melrose as its bench boss even though he hasn't coached since leading the Los Angeles Kings in the 1994-95 season.
The Lightning will sign franchise center Vincent Lecavalier to a long-term team in the coming weeks. They also reacquired the signing rights to winger Vaclav Prospal from the Flyers (Tampa Bay sent Prospal to Philadelphia at the trade deadline).
If the Lightning are able to coax Malone to sign with the Lightning, it would give them a number of options at wing for either Lecavalier or No. 1 overall draft pick Steven Stamkos, who may enter the season as the team's No. 2 center.
If not, they have at least sent a message to the rest of the free-agent crop that they are determined to rebuild this former Cup champion as quickly as possible.
Roberts, 42, would like to play at least one more season, but didn't fit into the Penguins' long-term picture. He would be a welcome addition in Tampa Bay, where the Bolts suffered from a lack of cohesion as they slipped in the standings and missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2001-02 season.
"He's about as good a leader as there is in the NHL," Koules said.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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