Bolts planning on striking twice
Still, that's exactly the shocking picture the resilient Lightning produced last season, a championship that entrenched the franchise in Tampa and offered incontrovertible proof that you can win it all playing exciting, up-tempo hockey.
Not that it was easy.
Remember how general manager Jay Feaster was roasted for his acquisition of Ruslan Fedotenko from Philadelphia at the 2002 draft? Feaster gave up the fourth overall pick, which yielded defensive gem Joni Pitkanen, but Fedotenko had a breakthrough playoff with 12 goals, three of them game-winners. Remember how everyone presumed Feaster would dump Nikolai Khabibulin after the enigmatic Russian netminder was benched to end the Bolts' 2003 playoff run? Khabibulin turned in a stellar 1.71 GAA and .933 save percentage in 23 playoff games, erasing all doubt that he was indeed a world-class netminder.
Go down the list.
Vincent Lecavalier, the star who would never blossom, was there duking it up with Calgary's Jarome Iginla in the final. Martin St. Louis, undrafted, unwanted, followed up a Hart Trophy regular season with 24 playoff points, second only to teammate Brad Richards.
Feaster received flak about Richards, too. After a tepid performance in the 2003 postseason, Feaster signed him to a three-year deal worth $9.25-million plus incentives, which altered the market for other high-end players coming off entry-level contracts. Richards captured the Conn Smythe Trophy after registering an NHL-record seven game-winning goals.
In the warm afterglow of a championship, Feaster has seen defensive anchor Jassen Cullimore depart via free agency for Chicago. And while he'd like to add another defensive piece, the Bolts appear set to return a championship lineup pretty much in tact.
Feaster spoke to ESPN.com about the Bolts' storybook season and what their plans for an encore.
ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last year, regular season and playoffs?
Feaster: I think that going into training camp the big thing we wanted to do was to establish in our minds that we weren't one-hit wonders. We'd made the playoffs in '02-03 and we'd won our division and won a round. And coming out of that Jersey series we'd lost the fifth game in triple overtime, and if we'd won that one we were going home for Game 6. I think to a man the guys understood how close we were. And then to see New Jersey go on and win the Cup, I think it finally dawned on us, hey, we're not a bad team.
And we had a favorable schedule to start the season, a lot of home games, and we got off to that great start, 9-1-1 in our first 11 games and it really was a case that we just picked up where left off. That helped us through some bumpy times we had in November and December. It was actually more concern outside the dressing room. There was never any panic inside the dressing room. We had our top six forwards who couldn't find the net to save themselves. But Torts challenged the guys, and the big guys slowly but surely started to come out of their slumps and they never looked back.
People say, how important was it to finish first in the East? It was huge. For Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final we get to go home, and then, because Detroit gets knocked off and the Wings were the only team ahead of us in the regular season, we're at home in the seventh game of the final, and I think it was huge. I wouldn't have wanted to have to play either of those games anyplace else.
In the playoffs, there were a few defining moments along the way. Nikolai Khabibulin was so good against the Islanders and by rights we should have been down 2-0 going onto the Island. And Sid (Darryl Sydor) stood up at a players' only meeting and he talked, and Dave Andreychuk and Marty St. Louis, too.
But it was really against Philadelphia, in Game 2 at home, and they just come out and pound us. It was the first time in the playoffs that we got the sense of, 'oh man,' because we realized the kind of hockey team we were playing. That's when Torts really did a good job of distracting the attention and putting it on himself and Ken Hitchcock, and Hitch kind of accommodated us by stepping up to it. It allowed the team to slide in under the radar a little bit after playing so poorly.
It was like one of those old "Rocky" movies, a heavyweight fight where the last guy to throw the punch was going to win. And then when we got to Game 7 of the final, getting that first goal proved so critical throughout the finals and after a bit of nervousness we did really take it to them. And to go up two goals in your own building was just so huge.
ESPN.com: Which player made the biggest strides in your estimation, had the biggest impact on your team?
Feaster: I think, in all honesty, it really was a team effort, although no one had as many questions marks about him than Nikolai Khabibulin. I think Nik did great just to step up the way he did.
Brad Richards was coming off a terrible year in terms of production in the playoffs, and he stepped up and had a huge playoff. Vincent Lecavalier, with questions about his defensive game, on the bench yelling for guys to keep the shifts short and blocking shots and chipping it out. You see him starting to understand what we're trying to do. And Marty St. Louis, great playoff the previous year and he again elevated his game. And that no-name defense, too. And there's Ruslan Fedotenko. He scores 12 goals, he gets hurt in Calgary in Game 3 and misses a game and comes back.
ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey?
Feaster: I think Fedotenko's the guy. That's the guy in the playoffs I had hoped that I had traded for. That's how I always imagined him. I thought his production in the playoffs the year before was disappointing, and to see what he did in the past playoffs is very, very gratifying. We hope this is the springboard he needs to keep it going forward in the regular season, the foundation he needs. It's what we need from him, especially because he plays on the top two lines.
ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system ready to play in the NHL right now?
Feaster: Defensively, Gerard Dicaire had a tremendous training camp and preseason with us last year. But because of our dysfunctional minor league system, we parceled our guys out to three different American Hockey League teams, none of them with our coach. So, we're going to have to see how much he's progressed in Utah, which is where he ended up last year.
Up front, J.F. Soucy was in Pensacola in the East Coast Hockey League, again because of our dysfunctional minor league setup. But he ended up in Hershey. He plays an up and down style. He likes to get out there and bang.
And then there's Evgeni Artukhin. If he can ever figure it out and ever allow himself to be coached, and maybe check the ego a bit. He ended up in Hershey, too. He already has NHL size. He's a monster of a man. He has NHL speed. When he hits you it hurts. But he's still a stubborn guy who has all the answers. I think this is a critical year for him. If anybody can break that wild horse it's Torts.
ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
Feaster: I still think we need to be, physically, more tough. I'm not talking about guys who fight. Maybe more snarl on the third and fourth lines. We want the third and fourth lines to be more unpleasant to play against. That's why the Calgary series was so tough. When you played Calgary every single guy finished his check every single time.
ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment from last season?
Feaster: One of the most rewarding moments, obviously winning the Cup, nothing compares to that. Nothing compares to being able to stand out on your home ice and hold that Cup. But for a professional moment, certainly seeing us rebound in Game 7 in the Eastern Conference final and seeing that in the space of 48 hours or 24 hours, whatever it was, that we'd learned the lesson from when we'd lost in Philadelphia. To be drained mentally, emotionally and physically and then to see them continue to just come wave after wave the way we do.
Personally, if I live to be a 100 I'll never forget my daughter, she's 12 years old. And I'd told my kids, if we win, come and get me in the suite and we'll go down to the ice together. When she came through that door I think she launched herself from about 30 feet away into my arms. She could be a general manager. When Chicago signed Jassen Cullimore she came in and said, "Well, now Sid will be able to wear number five."
ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
Feaster: It was that time, later in December, when the people around me, the people I answer to, were starting to question what was going on. That creeping doubt. That questioning, "Jay, are you sure? Maybe you should do something.' That was certainly a time, because I felt very strongly we were headed in the right direction.
ESPN.com: What activity, destination or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
Feaster: The worst part of living in this part of Florida is the school calendar. I grew up in Pennsylvania where school always starts after Labor Day. Here it's the first or second week of August, and now I've got four going, including one in preschool, and really the optimum time for me to get away is after the arbitration deadline and the start of rookie camp, mid-August. So it's hard to get away.
ESPN.com: And since you're the only general manager who can answer this question, how about a favorite Cup moment?
Feaster: I brought the Cup to my hometown of Williamstown, Pa., to the American Legion Hall there. There is not a traffic light in Williamstown. My graduating class, there were 105, maybe 110 kids. We knew every one of our neighbors. You knew everybody in town. And so many of those people have stayed in touch, so I invited all of the members of my class that were able to get to the Legion, before it opened to the public, to come down. Our little group had our pictures taken with the Cup. Then we had a parade. I watched many, many parades in Williamstown, but I never thought I'd witness one where the Stanley Cup was going down the main street.
Scott Burn side is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.