Pavel Kubina should enjoy his nice, new, big contract while he can because once the season starts, the Lightning defenseman is going to feel some heat.
Kubina signed a two-year, $4.75-million deal Monday that pays $2.25-million this season. It is a substantial bump compared to the $850,000 he made last season, and it makes him Tampa Bay's second-highest paid player behind goalie Nikolai Khabibulin.
Don't think the Lightning doesn't expect a return on its investment.
"The expectations are huge," general manager Jay Feaster said. "We need Kuby to take the next step up; a step where he's not just leading our hockey club in minutes or points among defensemen, but to become a guy recognized as one of the top defensemen in our conference and one of the top defensemen in the NHL. No question, the only way this team makes the playoffs is for Kuby to play like a $2-million player."
"When an organization gives you that kind of money, it's pressure on your shoulders," Kubina said from his native Czech Republic. "You have to show up at every practice, at every game and be the guy. I'm going to have to be the guy all the time."
Kubina's contract has no bonuses, and it eliminated one of the Lightning's five potential arbitration cases.
Kubina's agent, former Tampa Bay defenseman Petr Svoboda, said the respect he has for Feaster _ calling him "an exceptional human being" _ helped create a working relationship that expedited the deal.
Feaster also had kind words for Svoboda and said the agent's promise to watch over his client so he does not take his talent or contract for granted helped justify the money.
"Petr Svoboda recognizes what it takes to get to the next step," Feaster said. "I think the fact that Petr is truly mentoring here is a big plus."
"Kuby," Svoboda said, "is going to be ready to play."
Kubina, 25, did not miss a game last season, set career highs of 34 points and 23 assists, and, with his huge slap shot, tied a career high with 11 goals. He was a regular on the power play and penalty kill, blocked a team-high 125 shots and led with an average ice time of 23 minutes, 40 seconds.
He also is one of the Lightning's most asked-about players when teams call to talk trade.
But there have been growing pains.
Kubina was a team-worst minus-22 and seemed to struggle more defensively as the season progressed. He also had a tendency to stray deep into the offensive zone, looking for a chance to score. That leaves a lot of uncovered ice, and Kubina was not always quick to retreat.
Feaster said he also wants the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder to be more physical.
That said, Kubina, Tampa Bay's seventh-round pick (179th overall) in 1996 is entering his fifth full NHL season and has played 299 games. He also played well for the Czech Republic at the Olympics in Salt Lake City and at the World Championships, his third such tournament.
Even Kubina admitted it is time for the light to come on.
"I'm doing everything I can to be that player. I know I will be that player," he said. "I'm working hard every day. I have confidence in myself and the organization believes in myself."
Feaster also believes getting the contract done now and not in arbitration, an unpleasant process in which the team tries to expose a player's flaws, will sharpen Kubina's focus.
"This is a good deal and I feel comfortable," Kubina said. "It's nice when the organization gives you that."
As long as Kubina remembers it wants something in return.
ARBITRATION: The hearing for right wing Andre Roy is scheduled for Aug. 1. Right wing Shane Willis gets his turn Aug. 8; defenseman Dan Boyle's hearing is Aug. 9 and forward Vinny Prospal's is Aug. 13. All hearings are in Toronto.
10 PACKS: Fans are invited to the Ice Palace on Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. to choose seats for 10-pack ticket plans. Three options will be unveiled and free food and drink will be provided.
MIGHTY DUCKS: The team announced it has signed free-agent center Samuel Pahlsson and defenseman Chris O'Sullivan to one-year contracts. Financial terms were not announced.
Pahlsson had six goals and 14 assists in 80 games in 2001-02. The 24-year-old center was acquired from Boston in November 2000.
O'Sullivan, 28, played for the Kloten Flyers of the Swiss National League last season. He played 60 NHL games with Calgary and Vancouver between 1996 and 2000, getting two goals and 16 assists.
_ Information from other Times wires was used in this report.