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Renovations begin for new Lightning owners

Right wing Radim Vrbata, who had 27 goals for the Coyotes last season, signs a three-year deal with the Lightning.

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Right wing Radim Vrbata, who had 27 goals for the Coyotes last season, signs a three-year deal with the Lightning.

Left wing Gary Roberts said he is watching what the Lightning is doing with a little bit of awe.

The personnel moves, the news conferences, the bold declarations of change.

"It sure makes you excited," Roberts said. "You know you're with an organization that wants to win right away. You look at what they've done and you're excited to go to training camp."

What owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie have done since OK Hockey took control of the team late last month is open the vault.

Consider that the seven contracts approved and publicly acknowledged — to Roberts, Steve Stamkos, Ryan Malone, Vinny Prospal, Radim Vrbata, Adam Hall and Olaf Kolzig — will cost $61.67-million in base salary over the length of the deals. If the players reach their bonuses, it will cost $72.045-million.

Add the $1.9-million two-year contract Evgeny Artyukhin is expected to sign, Ryan Craig's coming two-year deal in the $1.6-million range, a contract for newly acquired defenseman Janne Niskala, a proposed two-year, $4-million contract extension for goalie Mike Smith and a proposed nine-year, $77-million contract extension for Vinny Lecavalier, and you are on a planet never before inhabited by a Tampa Bay owner.

"They're doing exactly what they told me they were going to do from Day 1," coach Barry Melrose said. "They said they were going to commit every bit of money they can to make this a better team, and they backed up their words."

On Tuesday, the first day of free agency, Tampa Bay signed Vrbata, a right wing who had 27 goals last season, for three years, $9-million with the intention of playing him on a line with Stamkos, the rookie center and No. 1 draft pick, and Malone.

It signed Kolzig, the former Capitals goalie, for one-year, $1.5-million, with bonuses that could raise his pay to $2.5-million and hopes he will battle Smith for the No. 1 job. Hall, a rugged 6-foot-3, 206-pound forward signed a three-year, $1.8-million contract.

It all more than made up for being rebuffed by Brian Rolston, whose negotiating rights Tampa Bay acquired from the Wild for a 2010 third-round pick but who opted to sign with the Devils.

"We had," Melrose said, "a pretty good day."

But the Lightning has work to do.

With 25 NHL contracts next season worth $56.3-million, including bonuses that must be factored into the salary cap, Tampa Bay is just $400,000 under the limit.

That means trades this summer that will cut payroll — Koules said the team ultimately will be in the middle of the pack when it comes to salaries — and get back some of the draft choices used in deals that helped stock the roster.

"We're very comfortable where we will be," Koules said.

Some players might not be when a training camp opens that will be intense with battles for positions and playing time.

"What Len Barrie and Oren Koules are trying to do is create that buzz," Roberts said. "I can't say enough about the commitment they are showing the players. Now it's up to the guys to win some games."

"I've talked to every player on the team and they're all excited, they're all charged," Melrose said, but warned, "It's the job of an organization to take excuses away from the players. The last few days, we've taken away the excuses."

SALE DELAYED AGAIN: The final step in OK Hockey's $200-million purchase of the Lightning, the St. Pete Times Forum lease and 51/2 acres adjacent to the arena was again delayed, though team spokesman Bill Wickett said the transaction should close today or Thursday.

"Nobody is panicking," he said. "It's purely procedural."

PAPER TRAIL: Artyukhin's agent said finalizing his client's contract cannot happen until the NHL receives a note from Russia's Continental League that Artyukhin is no longer under contract to the Central Army team. Mark Gandler said he asked Artyukhin for the expired document to speed the process.

"If I get a copy (today), then it will be done (today)," Gandler said. "If not, it will take another few days to get the note."

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

>>FAST FACTS

Spending spree

The Lightning opened its wallet to sign these players since OK Hockey took over:

Player Money Yrs.

Ryan Malone$31.5M7

Vinny Prospal$14M4

Radim Vrbata$9M3

Steve Stamkos$11.175M*3

Adam Hall$1.8M3

Olaf Kolzig$2.5M*1

Gary Roberts$2.07M*1

* Denotes maximum possible contract with bonuses.

Renovations begin for new Lightning owners 07/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2008 6:09pm]
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