Lightning GM in tough to keep Cup champions together

Overseeing a $30 million US payroll is nothing new for Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Jay Feaster.

The challenge over the next two months will be his ability to distribute between $15 million and $20 million to no less than 12 free agents, including 2003-04 NHL scoring champion and most valuable player Martin St. Louis.

Under the league's new collective bargaining agreement, meeting the demands of his players could prove tougher for Feaster than winning a Stanley Cup, something the Lightning did for the first time in their 12-year history in June 2004.

"Right now it's looking about equally as difficult. We have a lot of work ahead of us," Feaster told CBC Sports Online. "It's difficult to win a Stanley Cup, too, but we'll do everything we can to make it happen."

With a league salary cap of $39 million, Tampa Bay has $15.7 million tied to nine players for the 2005-06 season, a list that includes 2004 playoff MVP Brad Richards ($3.4 million) and veteran defenceman Darryl Sydor ($2.128 million).

Feaster's immediate focus is getting contracts signed for St. Louis, all-star centre Vincent Lecavalier, defenceman Dan Boyle and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who won a league-high 16 games during the 2004 playoffs.

He had initial discussions with representative of all four players on July 23, which marked the start of a nine-day period for NHL clubs to negotiate exclusively with their own unrestricted free agents.

Khabibulin, who is unrestricted, became an unrestricted free agent on Aug. 1.

Boyle and Lecavalier, both restricted free agents, also have arbitration rights this summer and could become unrestricted in 2006 if not signed.

"Nik's agent (Jay Grossman) told us that he very much wants to come back," said Feaster. "No question, Marty St. Louis wants to be here. Dan Boyle feels that way and I got the same sense talking with Vinny's agent (Ken Hughes).

"I'm confident we'll get things done."

One thing Feaster didn't do was exercise an option to buy out players' contracts at two-thirds of their value before prior to the July 29 deadline.

"We don't have any bad contracts," said Feaster, who recently signed a contract extension through the 2010-11 season.

Tampa Bay's GM since February 2002, Feaster conceded he would welcome some new faces to the Lightning, who set a franchise record with 106 points two years ago.

Among them will be Vaclav Prospal, whom Tampa Bay re-acquired in a trade with Anaheim last August. The 30-year-old forward posted a career-high 79 points with the Lightning in 2002-03 before departing for California via free agency.

"We want guys who are hungry in the locker room and push the other guys a bit," said Feaster. "Prospal didn't have as solid a year [with Anaheim] and wasn't playing a system he liked.

"Now, every day he's in the dressing room, he'll be looking at Stanley Cup rings and pictures on the wall of [his teammates] hoisting the Cup and saying 'I want one.'"

Luring others to Tampa Bay, Feaster said, shouldn't be a problem based on the team's recent success and solid core of players.

"The quality of life is good here and there isn't any state income tax in Florida," he said. "Also the [offensive] style of game that coach [John] Tortorella plays is attractive to NHL players."

Lightning owner Bill Davidson has told Feaster he can spend whatever he deems necessary for the team to remain a Cup contender.

Thirteen playoff games in 2004 wiped out Tampa Bay's $10 million loss from the regular season, while its season-ticket base has also increased to a reported 14,000.

"We had a really good selling run in the summer of 2004," said Feaster, adding 92 per cent of season subscribers kept their full investment on their account during the 10-month lockout. "And two days after the tentative agreement [on a new CBA], we did over a million dollars in ticket sales."

One player who may not return is forward Dave Andreychuk, a veteran of 22 NHL seasons and key contributor to Tampa Bay's Cup run.

If Andreychuk does sign, it will be for far less than the $1.8 million he was due in 2004-05, Feaster said.

"Dave Andreychuk provides so much to this team as far as leadership," said Feaster. "If Dave is OK physically, we'll do what we can to bring him back. We'll have to find a number that makes sense for David and us.

"We felt good [before the NHL lockout] about bringing back the entire [Cup-winning] team. But with the new CBA it's much more difficult to do that."