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New guys out to foil third-line plan

BRANDON — General manager Jay Feaster said he wants to rebuild the Lightning's top two lines through summer free agency.

Feaster said he sees center Jeff Halpern and left wing Jussi Jokinen, acquired from the Stars in the Brad Richards trade, as perhaps anchoring a third line next season.

Nothing against Jokinen, who played well Wednesday on the top line with center Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis. And nothing against Halpern, who had a goal and an assist centering a makeshift second line with Mathieu Darche and Michel Ouellet.

But as Feaster said, "If those two guys can be on a third line, it means we had a very good summer."

It is too early to tell how active Tampa Bay will be. There still are 19 games left this season, including tonight against the Maple Leafs at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Still, there are guideposts.

Tampa Bay has about $37.4-million committed next season to 16 players, including $3-million to minor-league goaltender Marc Denis, though it is expected his contract will be bought out, saving $2-million next season.

Buyouts are two-thirds of salary spread over double the remaining years. Denis has one year left, so he would be owed $1-million next season and in 2009-10.

Assuming next season's payroll at least matches this season's $44-million, the team will have some room with which to play.

Who will be available to fill spots left by the trades of Richards, Vinny Prospal and Jan Hlavac?

Potential unrestricted free-agent centers include Daymond Langkow, Yannic Perreault, Brendan Morrison and Bobby Holik.

Wings include Cory Stillman, Ryan Malone, Brian Rolston, Michael Ryder, Andrew Brunette, Matt Cooke and Marty Straka.

That doesn't mean Jokinen and Halpern will accept their presumed job descriptions without protest. Jokinen, 24, who had 14 goals for the Stars, said Thursday at the Ice Sports Forum that he wants to play on the top line. And Halpern, 31, said he must "rise to the challenge'' of "proving yourself in different situations.''

He did that against the Wild with a goal, two points, four shots and three hits. He was on the power play and penalty kill, and for the season has won 53.8 percent of faceoffs.

"Jeff, I'm going to use all over the place," coach John Tortorella said. "He's a hard guy to play against. He understands play away from the puck, and I'm going to put pressure on him to score goals, too.

"Sometimes he gets pigeon-holed into the position he can just check and play defense. In my mind, he can do a lot of things for this team."

Jokinen's game isn't as diversified, but his skills and poise with the puck make him a good experiment with Lecavalier and St. Louis.

"My style fits those guys," he said. "I can skate and shoot and pass. I think we can be a pretty good line."

"He's a student of the game,'' Tortorella said. "I wasn't 10 seconds into my conversations with him and he's asking me for DVDs to watch the team."

Tortorella will be watching Jokinen and Halpern.

"It's a good time for us to teach," Tortorella said, "and see what they are and where they sit as far as what the makeup of this team is going to be."

Gratton needs surgery: Center Chris Gratton will have surgery next week on a torn labrum in his left hip and could be out for the season. Junior Lessard (six goals, 15 points in 19 games since being acquired from the Stars) was called up from AHL Norfolk. … Left wing Andre Roy was excused from practice to be with his wife, Karine, who was to have their second child.

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

New guys out to foil third-line plan 02/28/08 [Last modified: Thursday, February 28, 2008 10:31pm]
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