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Khabibulin option likely to be paid

The Lightning apparently has resolved its goaltending issues for now.

General manager Jay Feaster said Wednesday he "would fully expect" the team to pick up next season's $6.5-million option on Nikolai Khabibulin's contract.

That, along with a strong statement from Feaster _ "I'm not trading Nik. I don't want to trade Nik." _ makes it sound as if Tampa Bay is planning to finish the season with Khabibulin and John Grahame in net.

"I want to go with the two goaltenders we have," Feaster said. "I think the two of them are the best tandem in the NHL. I want to win. I want to go as far as we can in the playoffs, and I think these two goaltenders give us a great chance, particularly now that we have solidified our blue line."

Feaster was referring to Tuesday's trade that brought top-four defenseman Darryl Sydor from the Blue Jackets.

Most interesting, though, is the likely pickup of Khabibulin's option.

"I'm not surprised," Khabibulin's agent Jay Grossman said. "He's an elite goaltender in this league. It certainly makes sense to do that as opposed to not picking it up which would make him a free agent and they would get nothing in return."

Still, speculation has been the Lightning would not commit that much money to one player, especially when a salary cap as low as $31-million could be part of a new collective bargaining agreement.

It also was assumed Tampa Bay would wait until nearer the March 9 trade deadline before deciding to trade or keep Khabibulin because his market value would rise with the hopes of Stanley Cup contenders.

A few circumstances seemed to converge to encourage the status quo. Feaster declined to comment but some dots can be connected.

+ If the Lightning does not pick up Khabibulin's option and then didn't trade him, the team would be on the hook for a $2-million buyout and loses him to unrestricted free agency.

+ Khabibulin's $6.5-million salary might be only a $1-million raise. Khabibulin will make $4.5-million in base salary this season and will get a $1-million bonus if the team makes the playoffs for a total of $5.5-million. He would not get such a bonus next season.

+ With nine victories this month, the Lightning is feeling pretty good about itself and believes it can be a factor in the postseason.

+ Some speculated trade scenarios have not panned out.

The Avalanche is rolling and appears happy with goalies David Aebischer and Phillipe Sauve. The Flyers can't trade goalie Jeff Hackett because he has vertigo. (The Lightning would have demanded a goalie in return in any trade.) And with Tampa Bay more secure in its playoff bid, the team may not be so eager to trade Khabibulin to a potential postseason rival, especially in the East.

None of this guarantees Khabibulin will be with the Lightning after this season.

An offseason or next-season trade could still happen if Tampa Bay decides his contract is too expensive in a salary cap or luxury tax world, especially with Vinny Lecavalier's salary going from $2.6-million to $4.2-million and Martin St. Louis in the final season of a two-year, $2.5-million deal.

It also is difficult to believe Grahame, who has a manageable three-year, $3.75-million contract, will be content another season as a backup.

It seems Feaster will deal with those issues when, and if, he must. For now, all that remains is speculation, which he said is unfounded.

"As long as there is a New York media and a Toronto media, and certain teams out there need goaltenders, it will continue," he said.

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