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Lightning scores; Puppa saved

The Lightning and goalie Daren Puppa saved themselves from an arbitration hearing, expected to be heated, by reaching an 11th-hour deal late Wednesday night.

"Everybody tries to avoid arbitration at all costs," general manager Phil Esposito said Thursday. "It could be a devastating thing."

The agreement in principle calls for Puppa to earn base salaries of $1.7-million next season and $1.9-million in 1996-97.

The deal also includes $812,000 in retroactive pay for last season _ 58 percent of the agreed-upon $1.4-million salary, prorated because of the shortened season.

The contract will be signed as soon as the performance bonuses are settled.

"It's not been the easiest negotiations," Esposito said in an understatement.

And an arbitration hearing likely would have made the relationship worse. "The nature of (arbitration hearings) is demeaning," said Tom Reich, Puppa's agent. "Sometimes harsh positions are taken about a player's ability. Arbitration is not good for a long-term relationship."

And a long-term relationship was what both sides wanted despite the rhetoric during negotiations. Puppa did not want to leave the team with which he rejuvenated his career. And the Lightning did not want to part with its MVP the past two seasons.

"I'm very happy; it was quite an ordeal," Puppa said after stopping at a store to buy shrimp and filet for a celebration.

Esposito said the deal puts Puppa's salary in range with the second tier of NHL goalies. "The upper echelon (including Montreal's Patrick Roy and Chicago's Ed Belfour) has six or seven goalies. The second tier _ that's where Daren fits in."

Puppa may have been able to get a better deal had he gone the arbitration route, then shopped himself as a Group II (restricted) free agent.

"It's kind of a crapshoot," Puppa said. "For goalies in the past, there hasn't been much movement for Group II. And I didn't really want to move."

Puppa went from an unhappy situation in Buffalo to Felix Potvin's backup in Toronto to Tampa Bay's No. 1 goalie. He posted his career-best goals-against average last season at 2.68 with a 14-19-2 record.

"Now I can concentrate 100 percent on the hockey side," said Puppa, who added the negotiations weighed on him during the season. "The ugly business side I don't have to worry at all about. I can enjoy going out and playing. I'll be a better goalie for it. I'll play a lot better and not worry about anything but stopping the biscuit."

Before Puppa talked to the media, Esposito told him he was going to his office to "get a defenseman to protect you."

"That's real good," Puppa responded.

Esposito said the team had four priorities in the off-season. The first two are accomplished: re-signing Puppa and defenseman Roman Hamrlik.

Esposito said he is working on the other two: "I want a veteran defenseman who can help out Marc Bergevin with the young kids, and I want a left wing who can put the puck in the net."

Reaching an agreement with Puppa has removed some pressure to sign goalie prospect Tyler Moss (the team's second-round draft pick in 1993), Esposito said.

If (the Lightning does) not sign him or trade his rights by July 7 _ the day before the entry draft _ he goes back into the draft. "The Tyler Moss deal isn't dead, although I haven't heard one iota from his agent (Larry Kelly)," Esposito said.

Other pressing business for the Lightning is to make decisions on five players in the organization, including veteran forwards Marc Bureau and John Tucker. The deadline is Monday for teams to either give qualifying offers or termination contracts to players entering their option year.