TAMPA — Marc Denis said he has no hard feelings toward the Lightning and hasn't thought one way or another about being bought out of the last year of his three-year, $8.6-million contract, which seems to be the plan.
There was one moment he had trouble accepting his demotion to AHL Norfolk. But other than a postgame bus ride from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to Norfolk, Va., in which he spoke by phone to his wife and kids in Tampa celebrating the new year, Denis said, "I tried to embrace it as much as I could."
"I don't care if I'm the oldest guy on that team or sometimes the oldest guy on the ice, period, for both teams combined," he said. "I will take a lot from the experience. I have no doubt I will be a better goalie and better person because of it."
Denis, 30, was supposed to be the answer to Tampa Bay's goaltending woes when acquired from the Blue Jackets in July 2006. But he was sent to Norfolk on Dec. 29 at 1-5 with a 4.05 goals-against average and .859 save percentage.
He would have stayed there had Mike Smith not strained his left knee in practice Monday. Smith said he is better but still has pain. With no other goalie in the system ready to play, Denis got the call and Thursday backed up Karri Ramo.
With $3-million left on his contract, it might be feasible for Tampa Bay to buy out Denis. At two-thirds salary over double the remaining term, it would cost $1-million for the next two seasons. Denis then immediately would become an unrestricted free agent.
Denis, 9-15-2 in 28 games with Norfolk with a 3.02 goals-against average and .905 save percentage, said, "I haven't even thought about it."
He has about the season.
"At the center of my passion for hockey is to make a difference, to play and contribute whichever way you can," he said. "That feeling might have been lost the last little bit I was here."
As for his future, Denis said, "I'll bounce back. I'm very confident I'll do that.
"It was tough because of the family situation. Everything else I can handle."
SMITH IMPROVING: Despite much-reduced pain, Smith said it is better to be cautious: "There's a little bit of pain still there. Minimal, but some positions are worse than others."
NO EXCUSES: Tampa Bay began Thursday with Mathieu Darche on a line with center Vinny Lecavalier and right wing Marty St. Louis.
The move initially was made during the third period Tuesday because coach John Tortorella believed the line of Lecavalier, St. Louis and wing Jussi Jokinen wasn't competing. Darche is an energetic forechecker.
"I don't understand why I have to change any line to get some people to play harder," Tortorella said. "It (aggravates me). I don't care where we are in a season. You need to play hard."
ODDS AND ENDS: Lecavalier's assist gave him 600 NHL points, in his 706th game, on 273 goals and 327 assists. … Defenseman Brad Lukowich (hernia) is skating with the team. … Wing Nick Tarnasky left the game in the second period with blurred vision in his right eye after being inadvertently elbowed by a linesman. … Forwards Andre Roy and Karl Stewart were scratched. … "Bingo" Bob Shank, the Lightning's intermission host in the early days of the franchise, died at age 62. … Tampa boxer Antonio Tarver said, "Let's play hockey.''
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.