When Denis Savard, one of the NHL's premier players for more than a decade, signed with Tampa Bay on Friday, Lightning president Phil Esposito excitedly talked about the playoffs.
Not in five years. Now.
"This is a very important step in our franchise history and I feel we have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs," said Esposito, who added high-scoring left wingers Gerard Gallant from Detroit and Petr Klima from Edmonton before obtaining center Savard from the Stanley Cup-champion Montreal Canadiens.
"This is a team that's building," said Savard, who signed for two years plus an option year. He was the Chicago Blackhawks' No.
1 pick (third overall) in the 1980 draft and was dealt to Montreal for defenseman Chris Chelios and a second-round pick in 1990.
"Petr Klima is a great skill player, and when you have the character and leadership of Gerard, you're going to be better. We're going to have some fun."
Even if Savard, 32, doesn't lead the team to its first playoff appearance this coming season, he will give the Lightning at least one first: a player who can dazzle the crowd with speed and shooting.
Savard has 423 goals and 769 assists in 946 regular-season games. He's the master of the spin-o-rama.
"Bobby Hull had that ability; Bobby Orr had it, and Denis has it," Esposito said.
"Denis Savard is spectacular," Montreal coach Jacques Demers said.
The past two years, Savard's free-wheeling style has been curbed by Montreal's defensive, controlled scheme. He was relegated to the third and fourth lines and played just a few shifts nightly. Savard, a six-time All-Star, was unprotected in June's expansion draft.
"We did dress him every day, but he was not prepared to accept that role for the upcoming year," Montreal general manager Serge Savard (no relation) said. "That's the normal reaction. But it's no use for me to keep a player who's unhappy in the situation he was in."
Denis Savard, in his option year, requested and received his termination notice July 1, making him a free agent. Esposito immediately contacted him and convinced him Tampa Bay was the right spot for him.
Montreal will pay part of his $1.25-million salary this year but received nothing for him.
Although the Lightning, which paid no one more than $400,000 last year, refused to disclose terms of Savard's deal, Savard said he took a pay cut for the final two years of his contract.
"They're giving me a chance to prolong my career and play again the way Denis Savard can play," he said. "That's the main thing. I still feel I have three or four years left."
"He was a very big part of what we accomplished last year," Demers said. "He's one of the greatest competitors I've coached. He's not finished. He just got caught in a situation here where we have so many kids. We could have played five lines. Denis has not lost his skating ability. He's a great acquisition."
With all deference to All-Star center Brian Bradley, who at times was the Tampa Bay offense, Savard realizes the fans throughout the NHL will expect him to be the biggest and best Lightning gun.
"That's fine; I'm ready for that," Savard said. "But it is a team, and we need everyone to play well."
But Esposito said Savard, Klima and Gallant will draw attention and create maneuvering room for their linemates, which should make returning forwards _ including Bradley, John Tucker, Adam Creighton, Rob Zamuner and Mikael Andersson _ more dangerous.
Bradley (42 goals) and Chris Kontos (27 goals) were the only Lightning players to hit the 20-goal mark. Esposito said he envisions eight players reaching that mark this season. Last season, the Lightning lost 38 games by one or two goals.
"You can't play defense forever, as we had to do last year," Lightning assistant coach Wayne Cashman said, adding that if the game were tied entering the third period, the Lightning didn't have the firepower to pull out a win. "Adding these guys gives us a chance to play a different way. We can specify jobs and start matching lines a little more.
"We had a lot of guys prove they could play in the NHL. That was a big step. Now they have to improve. But no matter what happens, we've improved."
Esposito, who also brought in goaltender Daren Puppa, said he might sign a couple of tough defensemen. Another possible player to strengthen the mix is center Chris Gratton, the team's No. 1 draft pick. Esposito said he now will begin negotiations.
"A lot of people think he'll be able to play in the NHL this year," Esposito said. If Gratton doesn't make the team, the GM added, he will go to juniors or the Canadian Olympic program.
"All three (Savard, Gallant and Gratton, who attended the Friday press conference) have a very, very important role in the Lightning and are all players we consider vital for the growth of the organization. Both for the present and the future."
The Tampa Bay Lightning's off-season acquisitions:
Player (age) Previous team
When, how acquired
D Donald Dufresne (26) Montreal
June 18, part of Rob Ramage deal
G Daren Puppa (28) Toronto
June 25, taken in expansion draft
LW Petr Klima (28) Edmonton
July 14, signed as free agent
LW Gerard Gallant (29) Detroit
July 21, signed as free agent
C Denis Savard (32) Montreal
Friday, signed as free agent
_ Savard's career stats, 7C