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Prospal returns to Lightning, with more changes in store

TAMPA — Oren Koules and Len Barrie, whose ownership group is expected to take over the Lightning on June 30, did not drop names while discussing their plans for free agency.

But Koules did offer this:

"We're going to be staggeringly active," he said.

Then he said "shockingly aggressive."

It was the strongest message from Monday's appearance at the St. Pete Times Forum that was set up to introduce the rest of the eight-person ownership group but ended being a window into their vision for the team.

Add the announcements that left wing Vinny Prospal agreed to a four-year, $14-million deal and that today the Lightning gets a coach (Barry Melrose), and it was like the last-place franchise got 30 minutes of resuscitation.

"This isn't something that's broke," Barrie said. "It doesn't need overhauling; it needs some enthusiasm and tweaking."

Koules, 47, and Barrie, 39, are the primary investors in OK Hockey, which is paying $200-million for the team, the Times Forum lease and 51/2 adjacent acres. Koules will be governor, Barrie said he has no title, and they foresee no front-office changes before a months-long evaluation process.

They said they will run the team as a partnership and agreed the first thing needed is scoring wings to play with newly drafted center Steve Stamkos.

"I think we will surprise people," Koules said. "Of the top five or six free agents, there's only one we won't be going after, and that's because he's a puck-rushing defenseman, and we think we have the best at that. So outside of that, we're going to be staggeringly active. We will not let Steve Stamkos out there by himself."

If that is the case, the Lightning is looking at high-end players such as Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Brian Rolston, Radim Vrbata and Markus Naslund.

The home run would be Hossa, who had 29 goals and 66 points last season and wants at least $7.5-million a season.

More reasonable might be Pittsburgh's Malone, a 27-goal scorer, or Rolston, who has three straight 30-goal seasons for the Wild and, at 35, could help mentor Stamkos.

Vrbata, with 27 goals for Phoenix, is interesting because of his right-hand shot, something the Lightning could use on the power play.

Barrie said Tampa Bay won't spend to the cap, expected to be about $56-million, but payroll could be significantly higher than last season's $44-million.

If the Lightning doesn't land a big fish, well, let Koules explain:

"Say you want to get a player, and he's $6-million a year. If you don't get him, do you spend $6-million on another guy if he's not someone you think fits in?"

Tampa Bay knows Prospal fits and will pay $3.5-million a year to reunite him with center Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis. Agent Ritch Winter said the final draft of the contract is being written and will be signed "in due course."

Who else fits?

"You look at your team and say, 'If we can get that guy for one- or two-million more dollars, and we'll be that much better, we'll spend it,' " Barrie said.

"Failure," he added, "isn't an option."

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

Prospal returns to Lightning, with more changes in store 06/23/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 26, 2008 4:54pm]
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