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Phil Esposito still has strong opinions, passions about 'his' Tampa Bay Lightning

Phil Esposito, left, during his time as GM with then-player Brian Bradley and alternate jerseys worn in 1997, still has strong opinions and passions about the team he brought to Tampa Bay.

Times (1997)

Phil Esposito, left, during his time as GM with then-player Brian Bradley and alternate jerseys worn in 1997, still has strong opinions and passions about the team he brought to Tampa Bay.

Like a lot of parents, he worries. He sees his kids in pain, and he worries. He sees them fail, and he worries. He sees the dysfunction around them, and he worries.

Who can blame Phil Esposito, then, for trying to bring the Tampa Bay Lightning back home?

Twice — when Oren Koules and Len Barrie bought the team in 2008 and when they sold it this season — Esposito has tried to repurchase the franchise that once belonged to him. Twice — when he saw how poorly the team was playing and when he worried about whether it was staying here — he has been part of groups that pursued the Lightning.

"I'm not going to lie,'' said Esposito, 68. "We had a group in the running for this. We lost to Koules, and we lost to (current owner) Jeff (Vinik). We raised an awful lot of money. We had enough money to buy five franchises. I don't think we got outbid. I think (NHL commissioner Gary) Bettman thought Jeff was the right guy. And so do I.

"We were close (to buying the team). We were really close. We went to New York, met with attorneys and different people. We stopped short of Gary because we wanted to be absolutely sure before we got to him.''

For Esposito, this all had to seem familiar. After all, it was Esposito who convinced the NHL to bring an expansion team to Tampa Bay in the early '90s. This time, he said, keeping the team here was his driving force.

"I didn't want this team to move,'' he said. "I didn't like the way it was going. It was almost like Koules and Barrie were trying to run the team into the ground so they could move it. There was no way I could let that happen, not if there was one possibility I could stop it.''

This time, Esposito said, he was going to be the team president. He was going to hire a good general manager, he said. And, yes, he said, he had a vision of how things should be. What? Did you expect Esposito not to have an opinion or 12?

"My plan would have been to do the same thing Jeff has done,'' Esposito said. "To fire the coach and general manager. Without a doubt. I'd really be looking to figure out who my goalie is. If you don't have a goaltender, you don't win. If anyone doesn't see that, they need to get into a different line of work.

"My other plan would be to make sure (Swedish defenseman Victor) Hedman built himself up and got a little tougher and meaner. I don't care what he had to do. If I had to send someone over to Sweden (in the offseason) to baby­sit him, that's what I would do. If not, they're going to run him out of the league.''

This is how conversations with Esposito go. His voice gets louder, and the words come faster, and suddenly he is a runaway roller coaster. If you don't want to know what he thinks — what he really thinks — then you shouldn't ask.

For instance, can Vinny Lecavalier still be an impact player in the NHL?

"Yes, he can,'' Esposito said. "But you have to find someone to play with him. Personally, I would put (Marty) St. Louis at right wing with him, with (Ryan) Malone on the left. I'd put (Steven) Stamkos with (Steve) Downie and (2009 draft pick) Carter Ashton. Here's our kid line. I'd call it the Kid Line and see what happens.

"The third and fourth line, you just want (them) to chip in. Except last year, they didn't chip in (expletive). And, except for (Kurtis) Foster, the defense didn't chip in (expletive).''

Still, Lecavalier's goal totals have declined in four straight years. Isn't that a concern for a player with an 11-year, $85 million contract?

"Vinny was handed that contract,'' Esposito said. "He didn't even ask for most of it. What was he supposed to say? No? You think about it, and last year he was a Ferrari playing with two Jeeps.

"My honest opinion is (Koules and Barrie) tried to sabotage Vinny. They wanted to get him the hell out because they overpaid him. I don't have anything to base that on, but it's my opinion.''

And how about a goaltender, Phil?

"I don't believe in (Mike) Smith, no,'' Esposito said. "I don't know what's wrong with him. Personally, I think he's a nervous wreck. There are moments when he's real good, but those moments are few and far between. (Antero) Niittymaki (who can be an unrestricted free agent July 1) is not going to sign here for $600,000.''

To Esposito, that makes the team's young goaltender properties intriguing. Karri Ramo. Dustin Tokarski. Vasily Koshechkin.

For Esposito, the Lightning always has been important. He'll sneer at you if you suggest the Bruins (where he played) or the Rangers (where he was a general manager) are his teams. This is his team.

You want hockey opinions? Here we go:

• On defenseman Andrej Meszaros: "I don't think (defenseman Mattias) Ohlund or Meszaros were in shape last year. I know I'd play Meszaros on the right side, because he can't play on the left. How those coaches didn't see that is beyond me.''

• On Stamkos: "He is going to be a bona fide great player.''

• On defenseman Paul Ranger, who missed most of the season on a personal leave of absence: "Do we know why he didn't play all year? I'd find out. I'd get on a plane and go to where he is or get him to come down here. If he wants to play somewhere else, we could accommodate that.''

• On Hedman (again): "He's got to be more involved in the play, creating three-on-twos and four-on-threes. He can skate like crazy. He did it early in the season, and then he stopped. I don't know if that was coaching or not.''

• On Koules and Barrie: "How can you have a partner you don't talk to? It's bad enough in a marriage.''

• On the seemingly endless wait for a new CEO and a new general manager: "It seems like it's taking a long time to me, but Jeff is a deliberate guy. Maybe he's looking at someone who is still in the playoffs. What else could it be?''

As far as the jobs themselves, Esposito thinks they're good ones. He likes Vinik, and he thinks the team isn't as far away from competing for a playoff spot as everyone thinks.

"I think it's a good time for this franchise,'' Esposito said. "I think it's the beginning of a very good run.

"I don't think this team is that far away. They were in sixth place (in the East) at the Olympic break, and only a couple of points out of fifth. I don't know what happened after that.''

For the record, Esposito says he is not a candidate for CEO or general manager. He has talked about a role, perhaps as a consultant, with Vinik. Good. There should always be a place for passion.

When it comes to the Lightning, Esposito always has had more than anyone.

Phil Esposito still has strong opinions, passions about 'his' Tampa Bay Lightning 05/22/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 22, 2010 8:46pm]
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