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Lightning in forward-thinking mode for 2008 Draft

by Adam Kimelman

Steven Stamkos has a chance to be a franchise player for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
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OTTAWA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning finished the 2007-08 season at the bottom of the NHL standings.

They hope to make it a short stay in the basement, and plan on using the 2008 Entry Draft as the first step toward prosperity.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” said Lightning General Manager Jay Feaster. “You go back and look at the ultimate success we had in 2004, the groundwork for that was laid in 1998 with the draft that landed Vincent Lecavalier No. 1 and Brad Richards in the third round. Again, to have the No. 1 pick overall, it’s a chance to add a franchise player.”

That franchise player almost certainly will be Steven Stamkos, the Sarnia Sting forward rated by NHL Central Scouting as the top player in the draft. Stamkos would fit well on a team with a major need at forward. The Lightning dealt Vaclav Prospal to Philadelphia and Richards to the Dallas Stars around the trade deadline, then lost forward Jeff Halpern to a torn knee ligament, which could sideline him until December.

“We’ve always said that if we trade Richards or Lecavalier, once we did it, we’d be looking for a center to be a No. 1 or No. 2 center, so it does dovetail pretty nicely that he (Stamkos) is the top-rated guy,” Feaster said. “We’ve interviewed a lot of the top-rated defensemen, and if you ask them who the toughest guy to play against, the answer is Steve Stamkos.”

Stamkos already is a favorite of the Lightning’s incoming ownership group, led by Hollywood movie producer Oren Koules.

“Certainly the new ownership has made it clear to us that they really like him,” Feaster said. “I think they’re excited to have a player of that caliber be the first pick on their watch. From that standpoint, it’s probably not the best-kept secret around which way we’re leaning.”

If that statement didn’t make it obvious, there’s a Web site,, produced by the team trumpeting the player’s imminent arrival, and fans can buy “Seen Stamkos?” T-shirts, bumper stickers and wrist bands. Fans are encouraged to send in snapshots of “Seen Stamkos?” sightings, some of which include bumper stickers on street signs, former American Idol contestant Justin Guarini posing next to a “Seen Stamkos?” sign, and the dancers for the Tampa Storm Arena Football League team performing in tiny “Seen Stamkos?” shirts.

“It’s one of those things where as the manager, if we were in a traditional market we wouldn’t have to do it,” Feaster said. “And yet we do have to work harder there. We’re coming off a season where we finished 30th in the League. Our fans are disappointed and all the people who jumped on the bandwagon during the Stanley Cup run, they have broken their ankles and tibias and fibulas jumping off. So I think it’s important that we help as much as we can and we try to introduce fans to the marketplace. There’s billboards going, they have T-shirts we wear as a staff, the wrist bracelets. I don’t know the exact number of hits, but I know the marketing people are thrilled with the success the Web site has generated.”

Stamkos said he was flattered by the site.

“I thought it was pretty funny,” he said. “At first I thought it was fans that put it up that wanted me to go to Tampa, but I read an article somewhere that (the team) actually put the Web site up. It was pretty exciting for me when I saw that, I was pretty overwhelmed. I’m pretty honored that they would go to that length to promote me and hopefully they do take me.”

Feaster says there’s almost no chance the team moves out of the top spot.

“It’s going to take a tremendous, unbelievable offer for us to move off of there,” he said. “As I’ve said to teams that have inquired, it’s going to have to make us materially better now, something that we can look at it and say this makes us a legitimate playoff team, we can win the division, do some damage in the postseason, and its going to have to make us better for the next 10 years, because we have a chance to take an 18-year-old player that is going to be around for a long time. … It would take a tremendous offer for us to move off there.”

Besides the opportunity to take the best player in the draft with the first choice, Feaster admits there are a number of holes he has to fill. The Lightning have single picks in the third and fifth rounds, a pair of sixth-round choices and three picks in the seventh round.

“I think we’ll certainly look at the best player we feel is available, but at the same time we need to continue to restock ourselves on the top two lines,” Feaster said. “If you look at us last year we were more forward heavy and goal-scorer heavy. We took some chances on some guys last year because we felt we needed goal scoring. And that’s because since I’ve been the manager we’ve concentrated on goaltending and defense. As a result, we don’t have the depth up front. To the extent that there’s an offensive guy there we’ll look there, but we won’t pass up somebody who we think is the best player to move four spots down on our own list just to take a forward.”

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