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Lightning, Kabibulin strike deal

Goalie, who hopes to play this season, could make up to $22.25-million through 2004-05.

Neeeeekolai. Neeeeekolai.

The chant started Saturday just as Nikolai Khabibulin entered Shots restaurant at the Ice Palace. As the 28-year-old goaltender signed his Lightning contract and donned jersey No. 35, the crowd cheered.

"This," Lightning general manager Rick Dudley said, "is a significant day for the Tampa Bay Lightning."

Khabibulin, who sat out almost two seasons because of a contract dispute with the Coyotes, signed a three-plus year deal with Tampa Bay, which traded for his rights March 5.

The richest contract in Lightning history includes a total base salary of $14.75-million. Incentives and a team option for a fourth season could boost it to $22.25-million.

The specifics:

Khabibulin, a two-time All-Star, gets $250,000 this season _ he might play, by the way _ with a $500,000 signing bonus.

He will make $3.5-million next season, $4-million in 2002-03 and $4.5-million in 2003-04. He can make an extra $1-million each season if the Lightning makes the playoffs.

Khabibulin will make $6.5-million in 2004-05 if the Lightning picks up his option. Otherwise, Tampa Bay will buy him out for $2-million.

The option-year salary is high because it buys out the first year in which Khabibulin could be an unrestricted free agent.

"I'm very happy I got here," said Khabibulin, acquired with defenseman Stan Neckar for wing Mike Johnson, defenseman Paul Mara, prospect Ruslan Zainullin and a pick. "I watched a lot of games of the Lightning, and the team is going in the right direction."

Then, a joke.

"I'd like to play in a game tonight, but it may take a few days to get back into shape."

That day won't be welcomed by goaltender Kevin Weekes, who hasn't disguised his displeasure with the situation.

The 25-year-old has played extremely well the past month, and Dudley has said he will not trade Weekes and even implied he will have every chance to compete for the No. 1 job. But let's be serious: Tampa Bay isn't paying that kind of money for a backup.

"The last time I looked, we were 29th out of 30 teams and Kevin Weekes was our No. 1 goalie," Lightning president Ron Campbell said. "No one on this team, Kevin or anyone, should say we're trying to improve our team and there's something wrong with that."

"I have no reaction," Weekes said. "This has nothing to do with me. I've already spoken my piece and said how I feel. It's not worth rehashing."

Khabibulin was analytical.

"I think we have to realize there are always decisions management makes, and as a professional you don't have any animosity against anybody. Kevin Weekes is a good, young goaltender. I think we'll get along. I'm a pretty easy person. I haven't had any conflict with anyone on any team."

That said, Khabibulin considers himself the No. 1 goalie.

"I think otherwise the team wouldn't acquire me and pay me a lot of money," he said.

Campbell said deciding to make the financial investment was not difficult.

"It's consistent with everything we've talked about," he said. "We said we would spend the money when the opportunity exists. It's a calculated risk that I think will pay dividends."

To drive home the point, Campbell talked a little baseball.

"Sammy Sosa is getting $72-million for four years," he said. "(Khabibulin) will win more games for us than Sammy Sosa will for them."

We have heard all this before, of course.

First Dan Cloutier was the goalie of the future, then Weekes. The difference this time is Khabibulin's track record.

His 118 victories from 1995-99 were fifth among goaltenders. He was 32-23-7 in 1998-99, his last before his holdout, with a 2.13 goals-against average, eight shutouts and a .923 save percentage.

Khabibulin turned down a $3-million a year offer from Phoenix, and the delayed sale of the team and its stadium and financial problems made him expendable.

The 6-foot-1, 196-pound Russian, who hasn't had a serious on-ice workout since December, said he will need about 10 days to get into game shape.

"I definitely want to play this season," he said. "If I practice and work hard and I feel comfortable and the coaches feel comfortable about my game, I would be happy to play this season."

Then, another joke.

"I think if I don't have a good game," Khabibulin said, "it's better this season than next season."