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Defense gets two veterans

Lightning general manager Phil Esposito worked three telephones at a time Tuesday, talking to every team in the NHL but one. He considered trading anyone and everyone on his roster at one time or another. He wanted to pull the trigger on a six-player swap early in the afternoon.

But when the trading deadline rolled around at 3 p.m., the exhausted Esposito had but two deals to show for his work. Tampa Bay sent rookie defenseman Drew Bannister and a sixth-round pick in the 1997 draft to Edmonton for veteran defenseman Jeff Norton. Then, minutes before the deadline, it traded goaltending prospect Tyler Moss to Calgary for rugged veteran defenseman Jamie Huscroft.

Esposito said he expected to be more active, but too many teams fighting for precious playoff spots were leery of making trades.

"People didn't want to make lateral moves," Esposito said. "But we don't feel we've made a lateral move. We traded one player on the cusp of being an NHL player (Bannister) and another who we didn't believe would become an NHL player (Moss) and got back two NHL defensemen. I'm satisfied we've improved our team."

Esposito said Bannister's steady decline over the past two months raised questions about his NHL future and that Moss had slipped to sixth on the depth chart in an organization that has only six goalies.

Meantime, Norton, 31, and Huscroft, 30, address the Lightning's lack of scoring and toughness on defense, Esposito said.

Norton, 6 feet 2, 200 pounds, has only two goals and 11 assists in 62 games but is known for his speed and has two 50-point seasons during his nine-year NHL career.

"I think I'm a good power-play guy, but I haven't had the chance to play on the power play the past couple months," Norton said. "I don't have the big shot like Roman (Hamrlik) does, but I think my speed is an asset and I move the puck well, so hopefully I can be used in a way I wasn't used (in Edmonton)."

Norton said he enjoyed playing for the Oilers, but was hoping to be traded.

"I'm really excited it was Tampa Bay," Norton said. "I like the way they play hockey: tough, hard."

And with the acquisition of the 6-2, 200-pound Huscroft, the Lightning expects to be tougher. Huscroft has only five goals in 244 NHL games over parts of seven seasons but has 753 penalty minutes.

"They won't have a picnic in front of our net anymore," coach Terry Crisp said.

The deal was made after Lightning goalie Rick Tabaracci, a former teammate of Huscroft's in Calgary, talked to Esposito.

"He's a hard-nosed player who plays aggressively and he's a solid defenseman," Tabaracci said. "If something is happening on the other end of the ice, you can count Husey to be there to help out."

Norton, who will make $1.4-million next season, is signed through the 1997-98 season, but Huscroft becomes a free agent this summer. Esposito, however, said re-signing Huscroft won't be a problem.

Bannister, 22, was visibly upset when he learned of the trade, and said, "It's disappointing, of course, but what can you do? That's hockey."

Several teams asked Tampa Bay about Bannister, who would have been a part of the six-player deal Esposito had lined up 90 minutes before the deadline. Esposito would not divulge the details, but said the trade "would've really upgraded our team."

Several teams, including the Rangers, Caps and Panthers, wanted veteran Dino Ciccarelli, but Esposito declined, saying it would have hurt the Lightning's chances at a playoff spot. Others asked for Rob Zamuner, Daymond Langkow and Chris Gratton but offered little in return. Surprisingly, no teams called Tampa Bay seeking a goalie.

The Lightning did make a run at Islanders forward Derek King, who was traded to Hartford instead.

"When we realized nothing big was going to happen," Esposito said, "we said, "Let's upgrade our defense because no one is giving away offense.' And in the end, I believe we did that."

_ Times staff writer Tim Buckley contributed to this report.