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Lightning invests heavily in players

The debate was whether the $194.32-million the Lightning spent in the summer on one-way contracts is as jaw-dropping as it seems.

Brian Lawton, the team's vice president of hockey operations, wasn't so sure.

"It's a little misleading because one player is nearly 50 percent," Lawton said of Vinny Lecavalier's new 11-year, $85-million deal.

Okay, but the remaining $109-million is $29-million more than what former owner Palace Sports & Entertainment claims it lost in nine years running the club.

The final bill won't come due for a while. The total is what Tampa Bay will pay if all of the contracts negotiated since OK Hockey took over in late June run to term. Still, the commitment to contracts that pay the same whether players are in the NHL or the minors is only $6-million less than the $200-million for which the team was bought.

Talk about sticker shock.

If owner Oren Koules is worried about the money despite season ticket sales that, as of Monday, were 1,100 fewer than at the same time last year, and sponsor-searching in a difficult economy, he did not let on.

Instead, Koules is proud of a strategy locking in good players to long-term deals so they can develop as a group while providing the organization with cost certainty.

"We didn't want to be hole-pluggers," he said.

"We take a lot of pride in knowing our top six forwards, who we believe are the best top six forwards in the league, all have three years or more on their contracts. But to be able to do that and have stability for a franchise, you need to spend money."

You also need to find it, something with which Palace Sports seemed to struggle. The company has said its only profitable season was 2003-04, when the team won the Stanley Cup and cleared about $3.3-million.

Koules said financial opportunities are out there and separated himself from the previous ownership based in Auburn Hills, Mich.

"They didn't go on a day like today and meet Tampa's mayor (Pam Iorio) and her staff and go out and have different meetings down at the Rays game. They didn't do that," he said.

"Being daily, hourly in the community, those things will pay off in spades in tickets, sponsorships, merchandise and suites. It's just a little bit of work."

Randy Vataha, co-founder of Game Plan LLC, a Boston-based sports investment bank that looked into buying the Lightning, said the Tampa Bay market can provide what Koules needs, even in a down economy.

"It's a quality market," said Vataha, a former New England Patriots receiver in the 1970s "I just think it needs a lot of tender loving care. The Sun Belt and hockey, it just takes time and good marketing."

And a winner to overcome memories of a last-place finish.

To that end, Vinny Prospal was signed for four years, $14-million; Ryan Malone for seven years, $31.5-million; Radim Vrbata for three years, $9-million; Andrej Meszaros for six years, $24-million; and if No. 1 draft choice Steven Stamkos hits every incentive in a three-year contract, he will make $11.175-million.

Cost certainty will be an asset if the trend continues that pushed the salary cap to $56.7-million from $39-million after the 2004-05 lockout, especially if the Lightning's actual cash payroll next season, currently $50.78-million, is trimmed as planned to $47-million.

"It puts pressure on you to select the right people,'' Lawton said. "We're doing more than ever to manage our club properly so we can put the best product on the ice and run our business in a cost-effective way where it doesn't cost a zillion dollars because we have a championship team to have our fans come out and see it."

Still, $194.32-million?

"It's a lot of money," he finally agreed. "But if you eliminate Vinny … "

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

Investment strategy

Money (in millions) the Lightning has committed to one-way contracts since owner OK Hockey took over in June:

Player Money

Vinny Lecavalier $85.00

Ryan Malone $31.50

Andrej Meszaros $24.00

Vinny Prospal $14.00

Steven Stamkos # $11.175

Radim Vrbata $9.00

Mike Smith $4.40

Olaf Kolzig # $2.50

Gary Roberts # $2.07

Evgeny Artyukhin $1.90

Adam Hall $1.80

Ryan Craig $1.575

Mark Recchi # $1.50

Chris Gratton $1.25

Andrew Hutchinson $1.00

Janne Niskala * $.60

Brandon Bochenski ** $.55

Zenon Konopka ** $.50

Total $194.32

* Can be returned to Europe

** Two-way for '08-09, one-way for '09-10

# Includes performance bonuses

Lightning invests heavily in players 09/06/08 [Last modified: Sunday, September 7, 2008 8:24am]
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