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Hold off judging Lightning for now

TAMPA — Let's see if I have this straight:

In the span of a week, the Lightning acquired a bunch of scorers, one goaltender and a first-round draft pick in 2009. And all it cost them was a ton of money and quite a bit of scorn.

Personally, I can live with that.

For no matter how loud the outcry over Dan Boyle's departure, the Lightning's new ownership is at least making a move. No one knows for certain if it's forward or backward, but it's better than the constant tweaking that had translated into three playoff victories in the past three years.

Once, stability was our savior in Tampa Bay. It helped a wayward franchise settle down and become a Stanley Cup champion. Lately, stability has been a hindrance. It has kept the Lightning from realizing the glory was gone and a new direction was needed.

Is Tampa Bay a lesser hockey team today because Boyle has been traded to San Jose? Absolutely. But is the Lightning a better team than a couple of weeks ago after the acquisitions of Steve Stamkos, Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Vinny Prospal, Radim Vrbata and Olaf Kolzig? You bet.

The point is this is still a work in progress. It looked great when they were spending money Monday, and it looked shaky when they were shedding salary Friday, and I assume it will be somewhere in the middle come October.

Because Friday's trade of Boyle and Brad Lukowich cannot be the end of Tampa Bay's dealings. The roster has too many spare forwards and not enough quality defenders. If this roster remains intact for the rest of the summer, new owner Oren Koules will literally have no defense.

Having said that, I understand the desire to deal Boyle. I couldn't swear it was a good deal for the Lightning, but at least you can see the rationale behind it.

As a 32-year-old defenseman, Boyle's six-year, $40-million contract was eventually going to become an anchor. So maybe new defenseman Matt Carle will not be as good as Boyle in 2008-09, but he might be by 2010-11. And he's going to cost a heck of a lot less.

Boyle's trade has given the Lightning flexibility. Just as the trade of Brad Richards did a few months ago. This had become a top-heavy franchise with too much money devoted to four players. Now the salary structure has been spread around, and the results will be all over the front lines.

Prospal is back to play alongside Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis. Malone and Vrbata immediately give Stamkos proven linemates. And, among them, Roberts, Jeff Halpern, Ryan Craig, Nick Tarnasky and, perhaps, Evgeny Artyukhin give the Lightning legitimate depth on the third and fourth lines.

So the offense looks better. And the goaltending, with Mike Smith and Kolzig, has been upgraded. That leaves the defense, which was weak last season and weaker still today. Again, as long as Koules has a plan to upgrade the blue line, it's hard to argue with the remaking of the roster.

I will, however, take issue with the way this deal was handled. Just last week, Koules blew off a question about Boyle trade rumors, saying he'd answer anything important. Was that an outright lie? Perhaps not technically.

But Koules purposefully gave the impression he was not interested in trading Boyle. Now maybe he gets a pass because he's new at this hockey executive gig, but being deceitful with your fan base is one of the few inexcusable sins of ownership. In a sense, it's more distasteful than any potential trade.

At any rate, this has been the most eventful couple of weeks this franchise has ever seen in the offseason. Stamkos is the biggest draft pick since Lecavalier, Malone and Vrbata are the biggest acquisitions since Nikolai Khabibulin, and Boyle's departure is the most painful since, well, Richards a couple of months ago.

Look, nothing comes for free. The Lightning had to endure a miserable season to get Stamkos in the draft. Koules had to commit $72-million in salaries to bring in a fistful of free agents. And Tampa Bay fans have to say goodbye to Boyle, and one of the final links to the Stanley Cup, in order to make other necessary moves.

So no matter how you feel today — exhilarated or angry — just remember nothing is guaranteed. Koules may think these moves will turn the Lightning into a winner, but he doesn't know for sure. You may think trading Boyle will be a disaster, but that's no guarantee, either.

The only way to grade these moves is over time.

And that's what's going to make this season worth watching.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Hold off judging Lightning for now 07/04/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 8, 2008 5:28pm]
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