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Play along: Who makes final four?

On this, the very last day this season NHL players must fret over trade talk, you are welcome to join in a nonsensical game we will call "Four for the Future."

The rules: The Lightning is about to make the deal of the century, a 40-player swap sending away 20 from Tampa Bay for 20 from a team to be determined. Rather than name the 20 who must pack, though, all you must do is name the four who can stay put. Anyone on the Lightning's roster is eligible, including goalies and players on injured reserve.

And before you even ask: Yes, you have to keep four.

Now, before you read on, allow yourself one minute to take pen to paper.

Done? Good.

Now compare your list to our very unscientific survey on the subject _ and bear in mind this inane little exercise was hatched Sunday in a watering hole after the Lightning's latest loss, its fifth in a six-game homestand.

With eight ballots informally and anonymously filed that night or the next morning, the name of only one player appeared without exception: Daymond Langkow, the rookie center drafted two summers ago.

Informed of this trivial tribute, Langkow accepted the honor with the joking cynicism of a 10-season veteran: "Maybe it's because I've only been here for a year," he said.

Two other names were on nearly every ballot, though not all: Rob Zamuner, virtually unanimously cited for having the heart around which winning franchises are built, and Chris Gratton, whose obvious talent was apparently enough to override his team-worst plus-minus rating (minus-24).

Rookie center Jeff Toms was mentioned multiple times. Mikael Andersson and Drew Bannister each got a vote. Future Hall-of-Famer Dino Ciccarelli, interestingly, got precisely as many votes as bad boy Brantt Myhres _ one. Also interesting: Goalie Daren Puppa got no more and no fewer mentions than Rick Tabaracci.

Perhaps most intriguing of all, though, is the list of those not mentioned. Among them: Defenseman Roman Hamrlik, the supposed cornerstone on which the franchise was to have been built; wing Jason Wiemer, like Hamrlik a former first-round draft choice and for a long time one of GM Phil Esposito's "untouchables"; and injured center Brian Bradley, the Lightning's leading scorer each of the past four seasons.

If you cheated and didn't fill out a ballot earlier, go ahead and do so now.

Just for fun.

Hurry, the clock is ticking. When you're done, ponder, as Esposito ponders what deals he is going to make or not make before today's 3 p.m. trade deadline, just what your own "Four for the Future" list tells you about this team.

FROM THE TOP: Don't think Lightning president Steve Oto hasn't had his hand in trade talks and other get-your-act-together discussions with Esposito and coach Terry Crisp over the past several days. "He just wanted to make sure we were all on the same page before we left," Crisp said of the latest meeting of the minds before the team departs today on a three-day trip to Western Canada.

"The general consensus," Crisp said, "was why trade apples for apples, unless it makes an immediate impact on this team to make the playoffs? We are not throwing in any towels. Our No.

1 priority is to make the playoffs."

FOR THE PUBLIC: Don't think public sentiment, especially in the case of a name player such as Ciccarelli, doesn't factor into trade considerations. "You better be careful," Crisp said, "what message you are sending to your fans."

But don't think that makes Ciccarelli or anyone else untouchable: "Phil will do anything he has to in the interest of this franchise," Crisp said, "to make us a better hockey club."

Still, the Lightning is not about to clean house or make any 20-player deals, either: "We don't want to give up our future," Crisp said, referring to Tampa Bay's youth. "That's stupid. We've hung in there this long."

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