An arbitrator's ruling on a salary hearing that begins this morning could go a long way in determining whether goalie Daren Puppa wears a Lightning uniform next season.
Lightning officials and Puppa's agent will make their cases for how much they think Puppa should be paid for the past season.
Within 48 hours after all is said and done during the hearing at a Tampa hotel, NHL-appointed arbitrator Richard McLaren will rule how much the Lightning must shell out.
The implication of McLaren's decision, though, will have an even broader impact: The award serves as the minimum figure the Lightning must offer Puppa, a Group II (restricted) free agent, in order to retain the right to match offers any other NHL teams should make to him.
Puppa's future with Tampa Bay could depend on the amount of the award: The Lightning must abide by McLaren's decision regarding pay for 1995, but general manager Phil Esposito has said he won't pay Puppa in the future more than he thinks he's worth.
Negotiations have been strained the past year, and both sides expect the hearing will be heated.
Esposito earlier this season said he offered Puppa a four-year contract (that would have included this past season had Puppa signed it). The deal (now off the table), Esposito said then, would have paid Puppa $1.3-million to $1.4-million next season, $1.7-million in 1996-97 and $1.9-million in 1997-98.
During today's hearing, both sides will submit amounts they think Puppa, 30, should get and argue their cases based on his play in 1993-94. The two-time NHL All-Star played in 63 games that season, compiling a 22-33-6 record with four shutouts and a 2.71 goals-against average.
McLaren can award an amount matching the proposal of either side, or an amount in between.
The Lightning's salary proposal to McLaren is likely to be close to the figure Esposito made in the contract offer earlier this season. Puppa's agent, Tom Reich, did not want to comment until after the hearing.
McLaren _ a London, Ontario, lawyer _ recently heard the arbitration case of Florida Panthers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, who was awarded $1.9-million. Vanbiesbrouck's statistics in 1993-94 (57 games, 21-25-11 record, one shutout, 2.53 GAA) were similar to those of Puppa.
Tony Esposito, the Lightning's director of hockey operations, said what happens with Puppa also could impact negotiations with goalie prospect Tyler Moss.
Phil Esposito has said the Lightning made its final contract offer to Moss, the team's second-round draft choice in 1993.
Should it not be able to afford Puppa for the future, Tampa Bay could up its offer to Moss, who would re-enter the draft if he does not sign by July 7. (The Lightning could also trade its rights to Moss.)
Tampa Bay has only two other goalies under contract: backup J.C. Bergeron and Derek Wilkinson, the top goalie for minor-league affiliate Atlanta.
Puppa's salary for '95 is being determined after the season because the NHL labor dispute and lockout pushed back arbitration hearings.
_ Staff writer Cammy Clark contributed to this report.