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Zamuner's dilemma: play, or win a title

Rob Zamuner faced a quandary last summer.

Should he re-sign with the New York Rangers and resign himself to a subordinate role with a championship-caliber team, or should he join the Tampa Bay Lightning and play a leading role for an unlikely playoff contender?

"It was really hard," said Zamuner, 23, who can play both center and left wing. "But it was a decision I made (based on) the last three years, not just the summer.

"Every hockey player wants to play."

In the final agonizing analysis, Zamuner was unwilling to wait any longer to prove he belonged in the NHL, which meant he was willing to wait longer for a shot at the Stanley Cup.

Lightning management certainly isn't complaining.

The 6-foot-2, 202-pound Zamuner, who has the vision and stick-handling deftness to create scoring chances for teammates and an accurate wrist shot to find the net himself, finished the preseason with four goals and three assists.

"I think Rob Zamuner is going to have a long and good career in the National Hockey League," said Lightning general manager Phil Esposito, who signed the free agent to a three-year, $925,000 contract.

"He's a pretty heady player," Lightning left wing John Tucker said. "And he's willing to listen and learn. He's young, but for his age, he's mature."

While Esposito doesn't envision Zamuner scoring 50 or 60 goals a season, he does foresee him finishing with "solid" totals of 25 goals and at least 60 points. How solid would such a season be? Well, established stars Brent Sutter of Chicago and Jari Kurri of Los Angeles each finished last season with 60 points.

But Zamuner, a native of Oakville, Ontario, who was a third-round draft pick of the Rangers in 1989, didn't see solid NHL seasons for himself with the Rangers.

In baseball, a young player realizes that three or four years of minor-league experience is required and expected. But in hockey, if a prospect hasn't made it in one or two years, he understands he might never.

"When you're in the minors (that long), there are days when you really doubt yourself and just bang your head into the wall," said Zamuner, who's taking a correspondence course from the University of Waterloo in Ontario and plans to take economics classes at the University of South Florida.

"It's so easy to say there are things you can't control and you have to just go out on the ice, do your best and the rest will take care of itself, but it's frustrating when you work hard, try to improve your game and don't get any reward."

The call didn't come _ even after two solid seasons, first at Flint of the International Hockey League (44 goals and 35 assists) and then at Binghamton of the American Hockey League (25 goals, 58 assists).

"The knock on Rob was that his skating wasn't good enough," said Binghamton coach Ron Smith, who also coached Zamuner in his final junior year at Guelph. "But when you saw him play night in and night out, especially compared to the other players, you saw his skating was adequate _more than adequate for the NHL."

Lightning assistant coach Wayne Cashman, who had been an assistant for the Rangers the past five years, agreed.

"Everyone said he wasn't a great skater, but he gets there," Cashman said. "He has great hands and a great hockey sense. He can play two or three different positions and he has a great attitude."

Smith also praised Zamuner's work ethic and upbeat demeanor.

"I could always yell at him and it didn't bother him," Smith said.

Zamuner had played 61 games for Binghamton, scoring 19 goals and assisting on 53, when the Rangers finally summoned him. But he rarely played, and in nine games he scored just once and had two assists. Still, Cashman said the Rangers had him "pencilled in" to start this year in New York.

"They never said that before (he bolted for the Lightning)," Zamuner said of starting out in New York. "Who's to know what would have happened? But I saw myself in New York as a fourth-line or third-line player at most."

The Rangers, who finished the regular season with the NHL's best record and were third in goals scored, return a slew of talented forwards, including centers Mark Messier, Sergi Nemchinov and Darren Turcotte, and left wingers Adam Graves and Kris King.

"I don't see how they could have kept him off their team," said Esposito, a former Rangers general manager. "They offered him a lot more money than we did, but he still came here. He loves to play and he knows he will play here. He knows he's going to be our guy."

So, what's the dilemma?