Brad Lukowich will never forget when he was traded to the
Lightning. How could he? It was his wedding day.
Hours before reciting his vows to Cara Kinder on June 23,
Lukowich, a defenseman for the Stars when the day started,
received a call from Dallas general manager Doug Armstrong.
Last-minute wishes for the groom? Not exactly. "I hate to do
this to you," Armstrong said before informing Lukowich that he
had been dealt to Tampa Bay for a second-round draft pick. "I
was excited," Lukowich recalls, "but the first thing that went
through my mind was, Oh, God. I can't tell Cara because I'm not
supposed to talk to her [before the wedding]." Today the happy
couple is looking forward to Brad's increased responsibilities
on the ice--and expecting a baby in the spring.
Tampa Bay can only hope such bliss is contagious. Though it has a
future All-Star in third-year center Brad Richards (62 points
last season), the Lightning produced little thunder on offense
last season, ranking 28th in the league with 178 goals.
Emblematic of that ineptitude was center Vincent Lecavalier, the
ballyhooed No. 1 pick of the 1998 draft who had just 20 goals and
37 points--the third straight season his numbers have dropped--and
squabbled with coach John Tortorella to the point at which he was
shopped around the league in late November.
In training camp everyone was getting along, and the hope was
that Ruslan Fedotenko, a speedy winger acquired from the Flyers
for Tampa Bay's 2002 first-round pick, will click with Lecavalier
to form a dynamic second line. "It's unlimited as far as what
this kid can do," Tortorella says of Lecavalier, who's only 22 as
he enters his fifth NHL season. "He has that look in camp, like
this is going to be a breakthrough season for him."
The addition of Lukowich brings toughness to a soft defense that
also needs the maddeningly inconsistent but talented Pavel Kubina
to blossom into a top blueliner. Behind them is the 'Bulin Wall,
goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who last season had a 2.36
goals-against average and a .920 save percentage. With a nod to
the team's 19 losses by one goal, Tortorella says, "Nic gives you
a chance to win every night." --R.D.
COLOR PHOTO: GENE J. PUSKAR/AP Vincent Lecavalier
The Lightning was shorthanded 273 times last season, the second
lowest total in the league. Just two years earlier Tampa Bay was
at a disadvatage 422 times, which ranked 27th.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
Offense 28 Thin group, even if Lecavalier isn't
Defense 28 Lack of speed makes unit easy to
Goaltending 5 Khabibulin hides many of team's
Special Teams 30 Small forwards, no quarterback brings
Management 30 New G.M. Feaster may be in over his head