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Passionate, hard-working Keefe playing for contract

Lightning prospect Sheldon Keefe looks to follow Brad Richards' path and earn a better deal from the club.

So there was the Panthers' Eric Godard, all 6 feet 4, 215 pounds of him, staring down at Sheldon Keefe.

At 5-11, 185, the Lightning left wing is hardly a match for Godard, who piled up 310 penalty minutes last season as the Western Hockey League's heavyweight champ.

But there was Keefe, giving Godard a big ol' push after he and Godard got tangled up Wednesday night in a rookie game in Hull, Quebec.

The confrontation ignited a nasty brawl between the teams. It also defined Keefe, the Lightning's top pick (47th overall) in the 1999 draft and the Ontario Hockey League's top scorer.

"I'm the kind of guy who instigates a lot of stuff," Keefe said Friday after checking in at the Ice Sports Forum in preparation for today's opening of training camp. "I don't take any crap."

He also doesn't want to be taken for granted. That's why Keefe, who turns 20 on Sept. 17, said he has not signed a Lightning contract. If he does not sign by June 1, he will be a free agent.

Keefe said he wants to play for Tampa Bay and, in particular, coach Steve Ludzik. He called it "a great opportunity," and said if he can't come to terms with the Lightning, it will be "unfortunate.

"All it comes down to," he said, "is that as long as it's fair for myself, we'll have a deal."

Keefe and his agent, Mike Gillis, are asking for $975,000 a year, the same amount given center and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League scoring champ Brad Richards, who is expected to push hard to make the Lightning. It is believed Tampa Bay is offering about $750,000.

Assistant general manager Jay Feaster said Tampa Bay has concerns. He noted Keefe's height and said he "is not a dimensionally fast skater."

Keefe mildly protested and spoke of quickness rather than speed.

"I'm much faster here to there than end to end," he said.

There is no doubt, however, about his heart.

"His passion, his work ethic, he stands out on the ice," Feaster said. "So for us, the question is: Is that passion enough?"

That's why this training camp is so important. Keefe said the Lightning told Gillis if he plays well against NHL competition during intrasquad and preseason games, the offer could rise.

And Feaster said, "Before we're prepared to do anything more to get where they want to be, we need to be convinced it happens at the NHL level. If Sheldon answers the question that passion is enough, the contract will reward him."

The situation is similar to one Richards faced before the Memorial Cup junior tournament, when Lightning general manager Rick Dudley challenged him to prove he was worth his asking price. Richards was named MVP and the Lightning paid up.

Richards and Keefe roomed together during the tournament in Hull. Guess what they talked about?

"We talked quite a bit," said Keefe, who had three goals and three assists in four rookie games. "His advice was to not pay attention to anything going on on the side, and the contract will take care of itself."

"I told him anything he's done before this doesn't matter now," Richards said. "You have to raise it up like I did. Nothing matters but the next month."

Ludzik said the status of Keefe's contract negotiations will not affect how much he plays or with whom.

"You look at him as any other player," the coach said. "Business is business is business. We saw what he did with those guys (in Hull), let's put him up another notch and see how he does."

Keefe, who had 121 points and a league-high 73 assists last season for the Barrie Colts, said there will be plenty to see.

"I can produce some emotion and energy that could help this team," he said.

And help himself in the process.

"If I play well enough to make the team," he said, "the contract will take care of itself."