The Bolts' blueprint
Equal parts superior planning and patience combined to shape the 2003 Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
General Manager Jay Feaster -- unheralded upon has arrival as the team's general manager on Feb. 10, 2002, after a three-year tenure as the team's assistant general manager under Rick Dudley -- developed a comprehensive plan to deliver the Lightning to competitiveness and then had the conviction to follow it diligently in the face of critics and setbacks.
Nobody, however, believed Feaster's master plan would pay such huge dividends so quickly. Even his most ardent supporters, like Lightning coach John Tortorella, believed that Tampa Bay was just beginning the climb to respectability as Feaster's bold strokes begin to coalesce into a formidable on-ice product in the past two seasons.
"I still can't figure it out, how quickly it happened for us," said Tortorella. "To do it in three years to get where we're at today, who is kidding who? That wasn't in the plan. It was just to continue to try to build a foundation and try to get better and just learn how to compete. As we went through, we figured that out. We started understanding it better."
And, while Tortorella gets much of the credit for prodding his disparate collection of players into a united whole committed to playing an entertaining and effective form of puck-pursuit hockey, the coach knows that he was given the goods to do so by Feaster.
"Well, I think a lot of credit goes to Jay Feaster in stabilizing things here," said Tortorella. "We felt we were an organization as far as player transactions, there were 70, 80 transactions a year as far as up and down from the minors and so be it. I think Jay has come in here and has stabilized things by identifying our team, what we're trying to build, identifying the core people and keeping the core people together.
"I think continuity is a very important thing," he continued. "I think he's kept a coaching staff together here now for a few years and I think the continuity of players and coaches we have built a pretty good foundation. So I think the credit goes to Jay in keeping things together in an age of sports where it's free agents, everybody is leaving everywhere. I think he's done a heck of a job keeping everybody together."
Feaster refused to panic in 2003 when his Southeast Division championship squad tumbled out of the Stanley Cup tournament at the second hurdle, outclassed by the eventual champion New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
He saw a team on the cusp of becoming an elite force and refused to bail on it in the face of pressure to shake up the franchise. Instead, he reinforced the team with some shrewd acquisitions.
Understanding he was going to lose top forward Vinny Prospal in July's free-agent market, Feaster made a pre-emptive move to acquire playmaker Cory Stillman from St. Louis at the 2003 Entry Draft. Two days earlier, he had added some valuable speed to his fleet of forwards by signing free agent Eric Perrin, who was playing in Europe.
Feaster also understood his team needed a stud defenseman to bolster its blue-line corps. He was unable to act on that impulse until after the start of the 2003-04 season, but eventually added former Stanley Cup winner Darryl Sydor in a trade with Columbus.
Such moves oozed confidence from the front office, an atmosphere that did not go unnoticed by the players already in the dressing room, players that had bonded together to begin the long climb from NHL obscurity to competitiveness.
So says goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who was brought into the fold through a bold trade with Phoenix while Feaster was the assistant GM.
"I don't know if anybody thought that we could win Stanley Cup," said Khabibulin, who won 16 of his 23 outings and posted five shutouts in becoming the first Russian goalie to claim the Stanley Cup. "But, you know, we were taking step by step, we were playing better, you know, I think the most important thing that the core of the players stayed the same. Guys like Brad Richards and Vinny (Lecavalier) and Martin (St. Louis), a lot of the guys matured, and you know, obviously become very good players now. I think that that helped."
It was not as easy for Feaster to stand pat as it may seem to outsiders. Lecavalier, the face of the franchise and former No. 1 draft pick, had publicly butted heads with Tortorella on several occasions. Ruslan Fedotenko, who ended up scoring the Cup-winning goal, was under fire for performing below expectations after being obtained from Philadelphia for a first-round pick in the summer of 2002. Defenseman Pavel Kubina, with the organization since being drafted in 1998, was considered by many to have reached a plateau in his development. Even Khabibulin was under fire after his poor showing against the Devils in the playoffs.