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General manager Phil Esposito pulls his trouser pockets inside
out to illustrate a point about what he calls the Pac-Man
Principle. Big-market teams are gobbling up talent that
smaller-market clubs such as Tampa can't afford to keep.
Esposito is specifically referring to the departure of
22-year-old center Chris Gratton, the Lightning's leading scorer
last season, who received a five-year, $16.5 million free-agent
offer sheet from the Flyers in August that included a $9 million
signing bonus. Esposito had three choices: match the offer
(which cash-poor Tampa couldn't do), take four No. 1 draft
choices as compensation (which he didn't want to do) or make a
face-saving deal with Philadelphia (which he did). For Gratton,
Tampa acquired oft-injured but talented wing Mikael Renberg and
6'3'', 205-pound defenseman Karl Dykhuis. The deal wasn't
popular among the Lightning players. "If the ownership is not
committed to winning," winger Dino Ciccarelli said at the time
of the trade, "then I don't want to be here."

Ownership? What ownership? Tampa has been for sale for a year,
and there have been no takers. The Lightning's leadership vacuum
is exacerbated by the frequent squabbling between Esposito and
coach Terry Crisp, which reignited this summer when Esposito
hired assistant coach Rick Paterson without consulting Crisp,
who is supposed to have approval on his staff. The Lightning was
further demoralized in September when its best playmaker, John
Cullen, who is battling lymphoma, learned that he would probably
be sidelined for the season and may never return to hockey.

Just about the only positive news concerns the comeback of
outstanding goalie Daren Puppa, who has recovered from back
surgery after playing just six games in 1996-97. He'll need to
be good because the Lightning lacks thunder--the 37-year-old
Ciccarelli led Tampa in goals with 35. On the back line the
perennial question mark hangs over mercurial defenseman Roman
Hamrlik, the first pick in the 1992 draft, who griped about not
getting enough ice time, even though he had the second-worst
plus-minus rating (-29) in the league.

Meanwhile, Gratton's exit is a reminder that the Lightning,
which has made the postseason only once in its five-year
history, is not only short on talent but also on money.