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Tampa Bay Lightning puts future on hold for promising present

Dwayne Roloson is among three key veterans acquired after the Lightning saw enough to put more focus on this season.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Dwayne Roloson is among three key veterans acquired after the Lightning saw enough to put more focus on this season.

TAMPA

As plans go, this one seemed simple and sensible. Build not for today, but for a thousand tomorrows.

The Lightning had already tried too many quick fixes and been caught in too many bad deals to risk another stab at turning the franchise around in a hurry. So when Steve Yzerman and Guy Boucher came aboard last summer, they made it clear they were committed to long-term goals.

Sure, there would be road blocks. And, yes, they probably expected adjustments would have to be made.

But who would have guessed that one of their greatest challenges was being too good?

With 22 games remaining in the season, Tampa Bay already has surpassed last year's win total and is currently the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference. Which means the team that was racing full speed toward the future had to recalculate its GPS somewhere along the line.

"We felt we were achieving a lot of stuff that was difficult to achieve, so I'd say it was around Christmas time when we really started looking at this," said Boucher, who has the team on pace for a record number of victories in his first season in the NHL. "At that point, we felt there was a consistency and a sense of character and success. Not just winning, but success in what you're trying to do.

"That's the criteria. That's when you know you've got something."

And that's when the franchise's focus changed. Oh, the future was still king. The Lightning would make no moves that would significantly trade on its chances for success down the road, but Yzerman was willing to make minor sacrifices in order to capitalize on today.

Which brings us to Dwayne Roloson. And Marc-Andre Bergeron. And Eric Brewer.

In a span of 49 days in January and February, the Lightning acquired three veteran players who will play prominent roles as the franchise heads toward its first postseason since 2007. Those three may not be around for the long term — they may not even be around next season — but this was an opportunity that could not be wasted.

And, best of all, the cost was manageable. The Lightning gave up a couple of nondescript prospects (Ty Wishart and Brock Beukeboom) and a third-round draft pick in trades for Roloson and Brewer. All Bergeron cost was $500,000 or so, and faith that an injured knee was healed.

In return, Tampa Bay has a good chance to win its first playoff series since the Stanley Cup final in 2004.

"It is still my belief that we need our draft picks and as many young prospects as we can get, but the players had played well enough that I wanted to give ourselves an opportunity to go as far as we could without mortgaging the future," Yzerman said. "The prospects we moved, I think we can replace with players already in the system or with draft picks. And losing a third-round pick was something I felt we could live with."

The greatest cost was to owner Jeff Vinik's checkbook. The Lightning took on close to $4 million in prorated salaries, which is one of the reasons backup goaltender Dan Ellis, and his $1.5 million salary, was traded for Curtis McElhinney on Thursday.

The key to all of the moves was getting Roloson from the Islanders for Wishart at the first of the year. At that point, the Lightning was a decent team with a problem in the net. Roloson changed that equation, and that made the subsequent moves more logical.

"It's Roloson. It's Bergeron. It's Brewer. It was specific needs. It wasn't about going out and buying whatever we could. We filled specific needs," Boucher said. "Goaltender? Perfect, we got one for the right price. Specific need for a power-play guy? Bergeron. Then what do we need? We need a big, shut-down defenseman. Brewer. So they were very smart, specific things Steve was able to do.

"We talk a lot about what we want to do, but this wasn't just words. This was action."

That action was not unnoticed in the locker room. For all Boucher has asked of the players this season, this was essentially the organization's payback. Play well enough in the regular season, and ownership will give you a legitimate chance in the postseason.

"Sometimes you can wait too long to make moves and then you're in trouble because there are 29 other teams that are trying to get the same pieces," said Marty St. Louis. "Our management saw an opportunity, and they jumped on it.

"You get players like that, you become better right away. And that's how we feel. We're better with those guys, for sure."

The other factor no one wanted to address was the relative strength — or weakness — of the Eastern Conference. The Lightning may not be a great team, but I'm not sure a great team exists in that conference. Philadelphia is very good and has more depth than anyone. Pittsburgh can be tough when healthy. A few other teams are just as good, if not better, than the Lightning.

But what Lightning players did in the first two months of the season was put themselves in the conversation.

And in the past two months, it was management's turn to be heard.

Tampa Bay Lightning puts future on hold for promising present 02/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 24, 2011 10:33pm]

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