BRANDON — If Karri Ramo is going to start the season with the Lightning, the goaltender has to win the No. 1 job.
Simple as that.
A backup gig isn't going to work when it comes to the feisty 22-year-old Finn. It's either beat out Mike Smith and Olaf Kolzig or get shipped to AHL Norfolk.
"If he's the best goalie here, he'll start," coach Barry Melrose said. "I believe in competition. But when the time comes, it's about long term. It's no good for him being the No. 2 goalie. He's got to play games."
Ramo believed he was going to play plenty in the NHL this season after what he called "a really good" 2007-08: 7-11-3 in 22 games after his callup from the minors, a 3.03 goals-against average and an .899 save percentage.
He was brilliant at times as a backup to Smith and, before that, Johan Holmqvist, and showed an athleticism and a swagger that endeared him to then-coach John Tortorella.
New ownership had other ideas. And when Kolzig was signed over the summer to push Smith, the proclaimed No. 1 heading into Tuesday's start of training camp at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Ramo understood he had become the third option.
"It was a disappointment," Ramo said.
But he is not conceding.
"It gives me more motivation," he said. "Nothing comes for free. You have to work hard. I'm just 22 years old. I have a lot of time, but I'm not just going to give in. My mind is on starting the season in the NHL. I'm not thinking about the AHL at all."
"I love that attitude," Melrose said. "I want him to feel like that. I'll be the happiest coach in the world if I have a tough decision about who is going to play goal."
The best case for Tampa Bay would be Ramo playing a full AHL season, especially after 2007-08, when he missed almost eight weeks with a high ankle sprain and played just six games for Norfolk before his callup.
Kolzig, who worked with Ramo during informal precamp skates at the Ice Sports Forum, said playing a full minor-league season can be critical, not only to appreciate NHL perks such as plane travel, not playing three games in three nights and not always eating at the "pizza-pasta place," but because game action is how one gets better.
"He's a talented kid. He's going to have a future in the NHL," Kolzig said.
But … "You need to play. Hopefully, he can go down there and become a goalie who can make a difference for a team. That pays huge dividends when you get called up and bring it to the next level. If you come here and apply all those experiences, those things are invaluable."
Ramo showed rough spots last season, such as being too aggressive and committing too early on plays, which sometimes took him out of position and left open nets.
Whether he plays in the NHL or the minors, Ramo said he will work as hard as he can:
"It doesn't matter what they do. I just need to keep improving. I still have to be working."
Even so, he said, "Your goal is to be here. You don't want to spend time there anymore."
"I love that," Melrose said. "That's one of the reasons we love Karri."
prospects tournament: The Lightning allowed three unanswered goals in the third, including two empty-netters in the final 1:29, and fell 5-2 to the Red Wings on Sunday in the tournament at Traverse City, Mich. Tampa Bay (0-2) tied it 2-2 2:53 into the third on Luciano Aquino's unassisted goal but fell behind 1:42 later on Justin Abdelkader's power-play goal. Goaltender Dustin Tokarski made 23 saves on 26 shots. The Lightning was 1-for-7 on the power play and is 1-for-15 in the tournament.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.