TAMPA — And so begins the final stand.
This is the last round of tinkering before it is time to blow the Lightning apart. This is the last chance at finding a goaltender before patience runs out.
This is likely the last opportunity general manager Jay Feaster and coach John Tortorella get before their jobs become part of the collateral damage.
For in the power struggle between ownership and front office — whether it was contentious or a simple disagreement — Round 1 was clearly awarded to the hockey people over the money folk.
That was evident Monday night when Dan Boyle was signed to a $40-million contract, and it was reiterated Tuesday when it was Feaster who agreed the time was right to trade Brad Richards.
They long ago gave up chasing fairy tales, so this was not exactly a dream scenario. But Feaster and Tortorella got most of what they were looking for in the past 48 hours.
They got to keep Boyle — that was crucial. They got to bring in a new goaltender — that was necessary. And they got an indication that the payroll would not be slashed next season — that was a relief.
So now the onus falls on them.
"These were our moves," Tortorella said. "And if we're going to make the moves, we have to be responsible for them. If they don't work, then we take the rope and hang ourselves."
Make no mistake, hockey in Tampa Bay came of age, in large part, because of these two men. Feaster added the final touches to a contending roster, and Tortorella pushed and prodded a young team to an improbable Stanley Cup title.
But years have passed, and victories have been hard to find. In nearly three full seasons since winning the Cup, the Lightning is 112-114 and has not won a playoff series.
Now the team is about to be sold, and the next ownership group has no particular reason to count loyalty among the considerations for retaining a coach or a GM.
That means a new campaign begins today, and the results will be known by this time next season.
"I think Jay did a great job in a deadline situation," Tortorella said. "From where we were (on Monday) to where we are now, we've gained some ground."
The trade of Richards gave Lightning officials a chance to correct two mistakes in a single move. They rid themselves of Richards' large contract, which had prohibited them from making other moves, and they made a final attempt at finding a real goaltender.
Heaven knows they've had enough practice since Nikolai Khabibulin.
In the past three years, the Lightning has promoted a backup (John Grahame), signed an over-the-hill No. 1 (Sean Burke), acquired a No. 1 in a trade (Marc Denis), gone to Europe (Johan Holmqvist) and gave a minor-leaguer a shot (Karri Ramo).
Now, it is trading for a backup (Mike Smith) in the hope he is ready to be a No. 1.
"On the conference call, (Dallas assistant GM) Les Jackson is saying what a great goaltender Smitty is and what great things he's going to do here," Feaster said. "I laughed and said, 'I hope you're right, because if he doesn't, I won't be the one picking the next goalie.' "
But it doesn't end with Smith. The Lightning still needs more depth on defense. And now Tampa Bay needs to find a new anchor for the second line.
And this is where ownership is still a critical part of the equation. Between trading Richards, Holmqvist and Vinny Prospal, and with the scheduled reduction in Marty St. Louis' contract, the Lightning will shed about $11.7-million in salary. With Boyle's raise and the acquisition of the three players from Dallas, the Lightning is adding about $7.825-million in salary.
That means, even if the new owners keep the payroll in the same range despite an expected increase in the salary cap, there will be around $4-million to play with in the offseason.
"I don't know what their budget is going to be, but you're definitely hoping they do spend some of that money and get some new guys in here," said Vinny Lecavalier. "I guess we'll see how it goes this summer."
Palace Sports & Entertainment might not have been the ideal ownership group over the years, but the folks in charge were smart enough to sign core players and to allow Feaster and Tortorella to make key decisions.
Now, in one 48-hour period, prospective owner Oren Koules has shown the same qualities.
Which, again, means the responsibility now rests with the coach and GM.
Maybe Feaster should be chided for not coming up with the right answer at goaltender or providing enough help from the minors. Maybe Tortorella can be faulted for sticking with an aggressive offensive system even though he did not have the right defensemen or goaltenders to make it work.
Whatever mistakes were made in the past three seasons, this is a final chance to correct them. An opportunity to prove that, perhaps, circumstances were as much to blame as decisions along the way.
Most of the Stanley Cup roster has long since left, and some of the coaching staff too. In a few months, the ownership group might also depart.
Feaster and Tortorella remain.
How long is up to them.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]