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Tampa Bay Lightning still seeks right mix of players

Paul Szczechura, 23, is among the youngsters the Lightning has called up from Norfolk since the season began.

Associated Press

Paul Szczechura, 23, is among the youngsters the Lightning has called up from Norfolk since the season began.

Perhaps you have noticed the revolving door that is the Lightning roster.

A league-high 36 players have suited up for the club, which hopefully is banking the frequent flier miles from shuttling players from AHL Norfolk.

Regular-season transactions: 29; in the entire 2003-04 Cup season: 14.

Brian Lawton conceded it makes it tougher to establish continuity on a roster that at season's start already had 15 new players. But the general manager said there is a plan.

"Right now, we're looking internally for a good accounting of what we have," he said.

Reading between the lines, the club is searching for organizational weaknesses to help determine next year's draft strategy; and strengths, from which it perhaps can deal heading toward the March 4 trade deadline.

Does that mean Tampa Bay, 17 points behind the Southeast-leading Capitals and 11 points from a playoff spot, is writing off the season?

"We're not giving up on the season. That would be an overstatement," Lawton said. "We're just looking to field the best lineup on a nightly basis. … It's more of an injection of youth and the right combination of veterans. It's finding that right blend."

Some of Tampa Bay's moves have been forced by injuries. Still, Lawton said, "A lot of young players are going to be given an opportunity."

The Lightning has called up forwards Paul Szczechura, Zenon Konopka, Steve Downie and Radek Smolenak and defenseman Matt Smaby. Perhaps still to come: forward Brandon Segal, defensemen Andy Rogers and Vladimir Mihalik and a longer look at goalie Karri Ramo.

To help make room, veteran forwards Jason Ward and Chris Gratton and defenseman Mike Lundin were sent down. Smolenak was reassigned Sunday. Downie and Smaby were returned last week.

"You can tell there are opportunities, and we're getting the opportunity," said Szczechura, 23, who in seven games has a goal, is averaging 14:54 of ice time and getting special teams time.

The opportunities create challenges for interim coach Rick Tocchet and his staff as they try to mold an ever-changing roster.

"I said, 'Fellas, you're going to be doing a lot of teaching,' " Lawton said. " 'It puts pressure on you guys, and you're going to have to be patient with mistakes.' … But when you look at the macro picture, it's critical for our success in the future."

As for this season, even if the Capitals go .500 (25-25-1) in their final 51 games, they would finish 43-35-4 for 90 points.

To reach 90, Tampa Bay, tied for last in the league with 22, would have to go 34-18 in its final 52. And that doesn't even consider what other division opponents might do.

Still, the Capitals were 6-14-1 last season before winning the Southeast with a 37-17-7 kick.

"So I'm not throwing in the towel," Tocchet said. "The game plan has begun, but you don't just start calling up guys and say, 'Let's pick up draft picks.' We're not in that mode yet. But if it means calling up players and trading for guys who want to compete and win, I'm all for it."

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

Tampa Bay Lightning still seeks right mix of players 12/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 15, 2008 2:19pm]
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