- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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There are a lot of intriguing stories as NHL franchises go through the first full summer of dealing with the salary cap. A year ago, the post-lockout scrambling involved frantic changing on the fly. Now, and from here on, it's more about balancing a coherent long-term plan with the need to fill holes and juggle the numbers for the upcoming season.
Two of the stories that especially intrigue me are unfolding in St. Louis and Tampa, Fla. (No, not "in Tampa Bay," because Lightning general manager Jay Feaster isn't making the deals on his BlackBerry while on a yacht on the water between Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater.)
They are two franchises fighting to make it back -- the Lightning back to the ranks of the absolute elite, the Blues back to at least the status of a competitive franchise that can rekindle the passion for the sport in what off and on has been one of the league's best markets.
At times, it seems we're forgetting that until a month ago, the Lightning were the reigning Stanley Cup champions. For two years, no less. The length of their championship term was fluky; the championship wasn't, and it's not as if the Lightning completely unraveled in staging their unsuccessful defense last season.
Now, they face the challenge of trying to make it through the cutthroat competition in the Southeast Division -- and that's only partially tongue-in-cheek -- but their one-round-and-done stay in the 2006 playoffs as the Eastern Conference's eighth seed was more an indication of a blip than of slippage.
The addition of Marc Denis, who signed a long-term contract after the Lightning acquired him from Columbus, solidifies their goaltending situation after the year of trying to coax greatness out of the mercurial and combustible John Grahame.
At Columbus, Denis wasn't as much underrated during his stint as the expansion franchise's No. 1 goalie as he was taken for granted and even overlooked. With allowances for periodic terrible games after being worn down, Denis was a bedrock amid the onslaught, in many ways at least as impressive as another goalie hanging in there with a bad team. Vancouver's Roberto Luongo repeatedly was acknowledged to be rising above the general ineptitude around him at Florida. Denis never has received that kind of credit, and I'm not sure I completely understand why.
The Lightning also will benefit from Denis' solid temperament -- he has an engaging personality that wins over his teammates -- and his intelligence. That will be a contrast to the tenure of Nikolai Khabibulin, the Russian who could seem to be on another planet for all he was involved in the team dynamic, and Grahame. Feaster was familiar with Denis, going back to when both were at Hershey in the AHL.
"We think he's a very dependable goalie who still has a lot of upside," Feaster said in a phone conversation. "We don't think he's at the top of his game yet. Because of the fact that he's so durable and dependable, we think he's going to be able to be a workhorse for us. He still has one of the best glove hands in the game, and we think he's a bona fide No. 1 and a big upgrade for us.
"As John Tortorella always said this last season, we never were looking for a goaltender to have to be spectacular; we just needed him to be dependable. I think that's the big thing, to have our guys with confidence that their every mistake is not going to end up in the back of the net. I think our forwards and our defensemen changed their mind-sets this last season. They were a little more cautious, and we abandoned the 'Safe is death' mantra that we had had."
The Lightning are still feeling the fallout of that 2004 championship since it created the downside of inevitable contract pressures. Now, it's not only a matter of being able to afford the marquee players, but being able to fit them all under the cap without tearing down the rest of the roster.
With Brad Richards signing a five-year, $39 million deal, the Lightning's core remains intact at great cost -- with Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis all locked up. The ongoing issue will be whether that Three Musketeer commitment will tie up too much of the available cap room, and whether what seemed anathema -- a trade of one of the three -- becomes a pragmatic move in order to be able to better balance the roster.
"As we go forward," Feaster said, "there are going to be a lot of factors that go into answering that question, not the least of which is how we have done drafting and developing, and whether we have young players able to step in at some of the critical positions on the team."
"We didn't want to lose Darryl, but we felt that him playing as a fifth, sixth defenseman at $2.2 million is a luxury that we simply can't afford under the cap," Feaster said.
Feaster laughed sardonically about the nature of the raised expectations the Cup season wrought.
"There was a time when making the playoffs three straight years would have been a wonderful thing," he said. "And yet, this past season it was almost like somebody died. It was, 'What happened to you guys?' I think it's great that we have changed the level of expectations in our marketplace."
A time zone away, in St. Louis, it's interesting to watch the Blues' first steps under the new ownership spearheaded by Dave Checketts, the former Madison Square Garden executive whose previous favorite hockey move was to say: "Sure, spend whatever it takes."
Broadcaster par excellence John Davidson has signed on as team president, but Larry Pleau has remained as general manager and -- as only seems fair -- has been given the chance to attempt to build back up what he was asked to tear down in the lame-duck period of Bill and Nancy Laurie's ownership. And coach Mike Kitchen, who held things together amid what easily could have turned into rubble, is getting another opportunity as well.
"It was a situation where a team was going up for a sale -- a franchise, a building, et cetera -- and there was the necessity to make proper decisions and move forward," Pleau said. "We're where we're at now, and we understand that."
It wouldn't have been shocking, of course, if the new ownership had said to both Pleau and Kitchen: "Nothing personal, but we need a fresh start and our own people." Checketts' group didn't do that, though Davidson will be above Pleau on the organizational chart.
"I was really glad because you don't want to leave it in that position," Pleau said. "We had already made some decisions in trying to get into position to get back, moving in the right direction and to get better with time. I'm very excited that I was able to stay on and work with a guy like John Davidson, who's so well-respected."
There wasn't a sadder place to be last season than in St. Louis as Kitchen attempted to make the most of a terrible situation. Thousands of seats were empty, turning those years of thunder in the Checkerdome -- and on several occasions since -- into echoing and mocking memories. This franchise has been such a roller coaster, alternating at generating passionate interest and well-earned apathy, it should be the name of a ride at a Six Flags park.
The revival isn't going to happen overnight, but the first step is showing a commitment to being a first-class organization. And that commitment seems to be there again, with the return of Doug Weight and the importation of Bill Guerin, hoping to rebound from his awful season at Dallas. Both of those veteran Americans have seen better days, but again playing on the same line, they can be part of a transitional season that shows promise and at least gets folks back in the seats. Whether Keith Tkachuk ends up playing on a line with Weight and Guerin, or on another line, his challenge is to show that he can maintain a season-long commitment to getting and staying in shape and being as good as he was after returning to the lineup last season, at least when he was healthy.
Logically, the team's instability and ownership mess shouldn't have been an issue for the players last season. But it was, as it always is. An atmosphere of throwing in the towel at the ownership level not only affects the roster because of the piece-by-piece dismantling, but contributes to a subconscious woe-is-us feeling for those sticking around. At times last season, the Blues played as if they were trying, but were weighed down by a team venture to White Castle for the pregame meal of a dozen sliders each. But Kitchen was instrumental in keeping things from completely unraveling.
"He did a great job for this franchise at a very tough time," Pleau said. "I know people were looking in from the outside and saying, 'What a mess,' but it wasn't a mess. Everybody stuck together. Usually when you have a franchise go through that kind of year, you know how much back-stabbing there is every week you're dealing with the unknown source saying this, that this guy is an idiot and that guy shouldn't be here. There was none of that."
In part because of the ownership stability and commitment, the Blues will be better this season and will help upgrade the Central Division.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
11dScott Burnside and Craig Custance