Cup finalists right on the money

Lightning, Flames build without spending big

Hockey

May 25, 2004|By Neil Milbert | Neil Milbert,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - By going to the Stanley Cup Finals, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Calgary Flames offer evidence that signing high-salaried free agents isn't necessarily the way to go.

Both finalists began the season with low-budget payrolls. On the NHL's 30-team salary scale, the Lightning was 21st at $33,535,379 and the Flames were 19th at $35,247,950. And Calgary's figure is somewhat misleading because $7.5 million went to Jarome Iginla.

Meanwhile, the Lightning and Flames are classic examples of building a strong core group through the draft and then enhancing the nucleus by making good trades and picking up productive free agents.

Tampa Bay made a monumental trade March 5, 2001, getting goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin from Phoenix.

The Lightning also made some other noteworthy deals, adding defenseman Nolan Pratt from the Colorado Avalanche in 2001, left wing Ruslan Fedotenko from the Philadelphia Flyers in 2002, right wing Cory Stillman from the St. Louis Blues last summer and defenseman Darryl Sydor from the Columbus Blue Jackets midway through the season.

A huge free-agent coup was Tampa Bay's signing of right wing Martin St. Louis after Calgary let him go in 2000. St. Louis led Tampa Bay this season with 38 goals and 56 assists.

Flames coach Darryl Sutter might have been a rookie general manager, but he wasn't averse to wheeling and dealing. During the offseason, he traded for center Steven Reinprecht from Colorado and defenseman Rhett Warrener from the Buffalo Sabres.

This season, Sutter made the move that ultimately made his team a Stanley Cup finalist, getting Miikka Kiprusoff from the San Jose Sharks, where he had been the third-string goalie. Sutter made Kiprusoff the bulwark of the Calgary defense, as his 24-10-4 record, 1.69 goals-against average and .933 save percentage attest.

Late in the season, Sutter made three seemingly minor but nonetheless significant additions, getting center Marcus Nilson from the Florida Panthers, Ville Nieminen from the Chicago Blackhawks and Chris Simon from the New York Rangers.

The tales of Calgary and Tampa Bay show that teams don't necessarily have to invest a fortune, as Colorado and the Detroit Red Wings did, to earn a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

NOTE: Rick Dudley built the roster that helped turn Tampa Bay from perennial also-ran to Stanley Cup finalist. He won't get the chance to finish transforming the Panthers.

Dudley was fired as Florida's GM yesterday, after holding the job for two years in which the team failed to make the playoffs. He was summoned to the office of team owner Alan Cohen for a two-minute meeting, and said he was not given an explanation for his dismissal.

The team said it offered him another job in the organization and scheduled a news conference for today to announce the hiring of a general manager and head coach.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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