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Lightning overhaul speeds into overdrive

Oren Koules said he cannot wait for the season to start.

The Lightning owner said he and his group, OK Hockey, "made a lot of promises" to the Tampa Bay area and "we want to show we're keeping up our end of the bargain. … We want to show off."

The area may not have to wait that long.

Regardless of whether the Lightning signed high-scoring left wing Brian Rolston on Monday night — and at press time it had not — the team has created something it has not had for several years: legitimate competition for jobs.

Consider what Tampa Bay has added: left wings Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and Vinny Prospal, all of whom signed Monday, and highly regarded puck-moving defenseman Janne Niskala, acquired from the Flyers for a 2009 sixth-round pick.

It also expects to sign big Russian Evgeny Artyukhin and seems interested in pursuing highly skilled wing Radim Vrbata, who could hit the free agent market at noon.

Add No. 1 draft choice Steve Stamkos at center and the return of Ryan Craig from last season's injuries, and you have battles waiting to happen.

"It wasn't a plan," Koules said. "It's just something that happens when you have competitive people on your team. We're excited about the players who joined us. We're having fun with it."

The greatest sorting out will come at forward as, all of a sudden, players such as Michel Ouellet, Jussi Jokinen and Jason Ward aren't guaranteed anything.

Consider Prospal will play on the MVP line with center Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis. Malone, and perhaps Rolston or Vrbata, could be on a line next to Stamkos.

Roberts could be on a line with center Jeff Halpern, and Artyukhin and Nick Tarnasky could flank Craig.

That doesn't leave many spots open.

Ouellet's track record of playing well with Halpern could help him. But Ward, so disappointing last season, and Jokinen, so inconsistent on Lecavalier's line in March, might find themselves on a trade-bait bubble.

Things are more interesting on defense with Niskala, who had 19 goals, 44 points in 80 games last season for AHL Milwaukee. He is a restricted free agent and received a qualifying offer from the Predators before being acquired Wednesday by the Flyers. That offer travels with him.

Roberts' one-year deal is for $1.25-million and $10,000 a game, which could boost his salary to $2-million.

Malone, who had career bests last season of 27 goals (11 on the power play) and 51 points, signed for seven years, $31.5-million, and will make $6-million in 2008-09. His father, Greg, was hired as a pro scout.

"He's a guy we focused on," Koules said of Ryan Malone. "He's a guy we know will make our hockey club better."

Starting with training camp.

OWNERSHIP TRANSFER DELAYED: The final step in OK Hockey's $200-million purchase of the Lightning, the St. Pete Times Forum lease and 51/2 acres next to the arena was postponed a day and is expected to happen today.

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

Lightning overhaul speeds into overdrive 06/30/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 2, 2008 5:54pm]
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