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Lightning effort to shed salary hits stumbling block

Who would have thought summer vacations would put such a crimp in the Lightning's plans?

But that is what seems to be holding up Tampa Bay's desire to deal, owner Oren Koules said.

"We have the assets," he said. "Nobody is around."

The Lightning needs to trade to trim cash payroll and salary cap number.

Thirty-three days before training camp, the team has 26 players under one-way contracts. Add defenseman Mike Lundin, who likely would be plucked off waivers if sent to the minors, and Tampa Bay has $52.03-million committed to salaries. Its cap number of $55.66-million is $1.04-million from the $56.7-million limit.

The team, which can carry up to 23 players, probably wants payroll between $45-million and $48-million. But Koules said, "We're not looking at a number."

Even so, hockey operations chief Brian Lawton said, "We'd like to continue to work on it, no doubt about it."

There are several ways to lower payroll. For example, it is unrealistic to believe No. 1 draft choice Steven Stamkos will earn all the bonuses that could raise his salary from $875,000 to $3.725-million. But NHL rules say potential bonuses must count against the season-opening cap.

If center Jeff Halpern misses 30 games because of his injured right knee, insurance will reimburse 80 percent of his salary for every game missed thereafter, though that money does not come off the cap.

The quickest way to payroll relief is through trades in which contracts go out and prospects and draft choices come in, a scenario Koules said is the priority.

Though that doesn't preclude acquiring a player to bolster a relatively young and inexperienced defense, Koules said, "We feel much better about our kids than anybody else."

Lawton agreed: "If we made any changes, it would most likely be with our (defense). But we are comfortable and happy with where they're at right now. … I can tell you as a fact I haven't called a single team about our defense."

The top five are Matt Carle, Filip Kuba, Paul Ranger, Shane O'Brien and Alex Picard. It appears Lundin, Janne Niskala and Andrew Hutchinson will battle for the final spot, though Matt Smaby and Ty Wishart will get long looks, too.

Top candidates to be traded are forwards Jussi Jokinen, Michel Ouellet and Jason Ward. Koules said speculation Ryan Craig, coming off a season of back and knee injuries, also could be moved was unfounded.

"Ryan Craig can do anything," Koules said. "He can play all … forward positions. He can cover guys. He's good on draws. That's a heck of an asset."

As for Tampa Bay's search for prospects and draft choices, the Predators might have something to offer.

Nashville has 13 2009 draft picks and blue-line depth that includes prospects Jonathon Blum, 19, a 2007 first-round selection (23rd overall); Cody Franson, 20, who had 11 goals and 36 points in 76 games last season for AHL Milwaukee; and Alexander Sulzer, 24, who had seven goals and 32 points in 61 games for the Admirals.

"Patience is a virtue," Koules said.

We'll see what happens when summer vacations are over.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Lightning effort to shed salary hits stumbling block 08/13/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 8:07pm]
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