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Is this good thing good enough?

Published Aug. 31, 2005

It's probably just a tweak. An annoyance, no more.

It's likely Brad Lukowich's hip flexor causes him discomfort this morning. It may mean he will play with some minor pain Wednesday night.

Or, it could be the unraveling of a playoff-bound team.

This is what you must think about if you're in charge of the Lightning. This is the fear you carry in your heart.

Your team is hot, your players confident, your spot in the standings secure. Life should be good. Except there is that part of your job description that says you, alone, are in charge of What Could Possibly Go Wrong.

This is why general manager Jay Feaster is on his office phone at this very moment. And he's probably waiting for the cell phone to beep.

The NHL trade deadline arrives at 3 p.m. Tuesday and Feaster must decide whether to ignore it or head it off at the pass. And an injury to a defenseman like Lukowich, even if it looks minor today, is just another complication.

Look, the Lightning could be better on defense. That's hardly a secret. Tampa Bay has been looking for a defenseman in a trade since December.

During much of that quest, Feaster has had to contend with a frugal budget and teams wanting to pillage his farm system. Now he has another impediment.

His guys are playing too darned well.

The Lightning is one of the hottest teams in the league and its defense is playing with a sense of purpose not often seen around here.

So does Feaster give in to logic? Does he acknowledge Tampa Bay is one injury away from potential disaster on the blue line and make the trade?

Or does Feaster follow his heart? Does he look at the camaraderie and pride in the locker room and decide this team is better off standing pat?

The answer is yes. To both scenarios.

Feaster is concerned enough about a lack of depth that he will make a trade if he finds a perfect fit. One that does not require him to give up a current roster player or too much of the future.

Feaster also is willing to ride into the playoffs with the players he has now. He has that much respect for the team's chemistry and the defense's play during the past three weeks.

"If 3:01 p.m. hits on Tuesday and we haven't done anything, that's going to be okay," Feaster said. "I'll be concerned the last 13 games, praying we don't get an injury on defense. And I'll be concerned in the first round of the playoffs, because of our depth. But it's certainly not a concern in terms of what these guys have done. It's just a question of depth."

It was not just a question of depth when Jassen Cullimore tore up his shoulder in late November. Back then, the Lightning was barely adequate on defense and Cullimore was as good as the team had.

Getting another body was a given. It was like the choice between success and the premature end of a season.

Yet, somewhere along the line, the urgency lessened. Somehow, without much reason or notice, the need has dwindled. The Lightning is not yet a good defensive team, but it has gotten stronger.

Think back to when Cullimore first went down. During the next six games, the Lightning lost five times. Opponents averaged 34.8 shots and 3.5 goals, and the Lightning looked like a team preparing to fall.

Now, consider the past six games in comparison. Opponents have averaged 27.8 shots and 1.6 goals. And the Lightning has won four times.

"It's just all come together," defenseman Dan Boyle said. "It's just been good, team defense. If a guy screws up out there, makes a mistake, the next guy is there to help him out. That's how a good team plays."

Players, clearly, prefer the status quo. They have gotten the team this far and are rightfully protective of their turf.

This leaves the front office in the uneasy position of trying to do a job while hoping to avoid any hurt feelings.

"It's a great question because there's really no good answer," coach John Tortorella said. "Just because your team is playing well, you don't want to stop growing and adding pieces because then you fall off the map very quick.

"But one of the biggest improvements we've made as a hockey club is our stability. We have stabilized. We haven't had a bunch of transactions, moving people to the minors, sending them here or there, doing this, that or the other thing because you're upset at a particular time with a player."

Feaster, and his predecessors, have been forced to build this franchise through trades and the draft. Ownership has not made it easy by giving the go-ahead to chase free agents with a fistful of cash.

So maybe, this time, it should be a question of when the Lightning seeks help rather than whether it seeks help.

Yes, the Lightning has a good thing going.

And, yes, it ultimately needs to upgrade the defense.

So why not honor both? Keep this team intact and make a commitment to go after a free-agent defenseman in the offseason.

It's important to make the most of today, but not at the expense of days to come.