Tampa Bay Lightning
Bolts will take a cautious approach to free agency
TAMPA - Last year, Lightning ownership dived into the free-agent pool headfirst, hoping to make a big splash. Unfortunately, the plunge came from a big, old belly flop that could have rippling effects heading into today's start of free agency. Though the team signed what seemed to be every available free agent last season, the Lightning fell flat on the ice, finishing 29th overall and with a worse record than the previous season. Add in the firing of their head coach 16 games into the season, a revolving door of player moves and now a squabble between owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie that required mediation by Commissioner Gary Bettman, and it might just leave potential free agents looking elsewhere first.While there might be an impression all the dysfunction of the past 12 months might lead to rough free-agent waters, Lightning general manager Brian Lawton said he has been fielding plenty of calls leading up to today. "A lot of guys have been calling us to let us know who they have available, an abnormal amount of calls, actually," Lawton said. "They see Tampa Bay as a desirable place to play and people look at our team and the players we have and us being better than a 29th-place team, a team that they want to be a part of." Instead of diving right into free agency this year, Lawton intends to dip a toe into the waters to test how things feel and make sure the players the team pursues want to be here and are the right fit. "We have what we feel is a real solid plan to move forward in a tortoise-like manner," Lawton said. "We have put in the effort to be prepared and it will be a slow and steady process in what we hope allows us to fill our needs and move forward." The team's biggest need is a veteran backup goaltender, a void created when projected No. 2 Karri Ramo signed with Avangard Omsk in Russia. Starter Mike Smith is 100 percent recovered from a season-ending concussion, according to Lawton, and the team is seeking a reliable backup. "We'll come up with a backup in the next week or so," Lawton said. "While a trade is something we could look at, free agency is the first route we will look into." Another area Lawton would like to explore is bringing in a defenseman who can act as a mentor for first-round pick Victor Hedman on and off the ice. "That's something that is on our radar. We'll have to see what presents itself today," Lawton said. BOLTS BITS: Lightning forward Ryan Malone was one of 34 players invited to take part in USA Hockey's three-day orientation camp in preparation for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. The camp will be held Aug. 17-19 in Woodridge, Ill.. ... The team will host a free open skate for the public from 3-5 p.m. July 12 the St. Pete Times Forum. Participants must bring their own skates; rentals will not be available.
Reporter Erik Erlendsson can be reached at (813) 259-7835.