Even as the lockout continues and an end does not seem in sight, I couldn't help but thinking back to the long road it took the Lightning to put together a roster that would lead to Lord Stanley's Cup.
Bill Davidson, Tom Wilson, Ron Campbell, Rick Dudley and even Art Williams are the men that, I believe, must be thanked in full for the Lightning being where they are today. I've made no secret that I am someone who is thankful for what Rick Dudley did for the franchise, and I make no secret that Phil Esposito's last draft had also helped build the Lightning to where they are now...
But what exactly got us there? What key moments in Lightning history over the past six years helped the Lightning reach the apex of the NHL -- having the right to raise Lord Stanley's Cup over their heads in triumph? This won't be a complete retrospect because I could include players that were acquired that helped acquire other players that got a player on the Lightning roster and that would be exhausting. Never the less, lets take a look back:
NHL Entry Draft 1996 -- A mostly unspectacular draft where Phil Esposito wasn't sure who or what to grab or when (not faulting Phil, most GM's were unsure as well). Mario Larocque was the first round selection by the team but he didn't pan out anywhere in pro hockey. Fortunately a seventh round defensive selection did defy the odds: Pavel Kubina has become an NHL All-Star defensiveman.
January 1998 -- Jassen Cullimore was claimed off waivers from the Vancouver Canucks. It would be a slow progression, like Pavel Kubina, but Cullimore would become a mainstay on the Lightning blue-line and a critical asset
NHL Entry Draft 1998 -- Vincent Lecavalier is taken #1 overall in the entry draft which was a gimmie selection. Brad Richards is selected in the third round at Lecavalier's urging. Dmitry Afanasenkov and Martin Cibak would also be selected. All four players served vital roles on Tampa Bay's 2003-04 championship run.
October 1998 -- Phil Esposito's tenure as Tampa Bay General Manager and father of the Lightning is brought to a halt after a spending-spree on mediocre talent during the off-season (and mis-reporting that spending to new owner Art Williams). Jacques Demers would assume duties of GM and Head Coach before his own removal at the end of the season.
1999 Off Season -- To the ilk of Tampa Bay Lightning fans, outgoing owner Art Williams rejects a trade that would send agitator and fan-favorite Darcy Tucker to the Dallas Stars for goaltender Roman Turek (who was a rising star at the time). Williams' reason for rejecting the deal was Palace Sports slowness in finalizing their purchase of the Lightning. Williams wanted to take on no extra costs while he remained owner. This rejection would cause a ripple effect - positive ripple effect - for the franchise as Tucker would later be traded for Mike Johnson, who would later be dealt for a much stronger goaltender than Turek will ever be...
October 1999 -- In a move that Lightning fans rejoice in remembering, Cory Cross was traded (along with a 7th round pick) to the Toronto Maple Leafs in return for a struggling left wing by the name of Fredrik Modin. Cross was and is basically a #7 D-man who had served in the top defensive pairing on the Lightning defense during his tenure. Modin, free of the pressure to perform in Toronto, blossomed into a mainstay power forward and a leader on and off the ice.
A day later, Ben Clymer, a then-defensiveman, was signed by the Lightning to a three-year deal. Clymer would later switch to forward and at times be used in defensive pairings. The versatile Clymer was a mainstay during the teams struggling years and a bright spot as well.
March 2000 -- Center Chris Gratton, who had been re-acquired from Philadelphia a year earlier by Jacques Demers, is traded to the Buffalo Sabres for Wayne Primeau, Brian Holzinger and a young defensive prospect named Cory Sarich. Sarich has become a mainstay in the defensive zone. Some like to crap on Cory for his mistakes but he has grown into the role and will only improve with time.
2000 Off Season -- Rick Dudley takes a chance on a former Hobby Baker finalist who had been playing on the lower lines for the Calgary Flames. Martin St. Louis had been changed from an offensive threat to a checking-line player who rarely saw ice time with the Flames. This would change greatly with the Lightning as St. Louis was allowed to regain his scoring touch and has become the mighty-mite superstar of the NHL.
January 2001 -- Steve Ludzik, who had taken several Detroit Viper IHL teams to the Turner Cup but was not having success at the NHL level, was fired and assistant John Tortorella promoted to the rank of Head Coach. It would be one season before this move would pay dividends, as the Lightning would return to the playoffs under Tortorella's leadership and ultimately win the Stanley Cup. Tortorella is credited with vastly improving Vincent Lecavalier's game (along with almost running Vinny out of town in 2001-02).
March 2001 -- In the move that woke up Lightning fans and gave birth to hope in Tampa Bay, Rick Dudley sends defensiveman Paul Mara, forward Mike Johnson, Ruslan Zainullin, and a 2nd round draft pick in 2001 Entry Draft for defensiveman Stanislav Neckar and the rights to goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin who is later signed to a lump sum contract. Khabibulin had not played in nearly 2 seasons in total and Dudley was taking a definite risk at the time. But it paid off in the end. Khabibulin played one game during the 2000-01 season before coming back full-on in 2001-02 and dominating mercilessly at both the NHL level and during Olympic play at the Salt Lake City games. Finally the Lightning had a backstop on par to once-great Darren Puppa and fans now had the legit belief there was a commitment to winning.
Neckar would later leave the team and be re-acquired at the 2004 trade deadline.
2001 Entry Draft -- Besides the #1 selection of Russian center Alexander Svitov, Tampa Bay traded a 6th round selection to the Colorado Avalanche for Nolan Pratt. Pratt has played a shifting role for the Lightning as new faces and injuries have changed his playing time over the years.
2000-2001 Off Season -- Lacking a center that is strong with face offs, Rick Dudley sends forward Nils Ekman and Enforcer Kyle Feadrich to the New York Rangers in return for the services of veteran center Tim Taylor. Another reason for Taylor's acquisition was due to his leadership abilities.
The Lightning's young nucleus sorely lacked veteran guidance and Taylor would help solidify the attitude needed to become a contender, but probably not as much as Dave Andreychuk. A then-18 year NHL Veteran who had made several runs for Lord Stanley's cup but never once won it, a gritty forward and needed strength on the Power Play, he was signed to further provide leadership, guidance and maturity to the Lightning roster. Andreychuk, would be named captain soon after then-captain Vincent Lecavalier returned from a contract dispute.
January 2002 -- Dan Boyle is acquired from the Florida Panthers for a 5th round pick. Boyle is undersized for a defensiveman and languishing in Mike Keenan's doghouse. Keenan has expressed his displeasure with having Boyle at all and this fuels the fire in Boyle after he escapes from Iron Mike's clutches. Boyle has proven to be a very formidable offensive defensiveman with speed and skill to match his scoring touch. Keenan will never regret, and Dan Boyle will never forget.
March 2002 -- Goalie Kevin Weekes, a solid backstop but lacking playing time with Nikolai Khabibulin as the #1 goalie for Tampa Bay, is traded to division rival Carolina for RW Shane Willis and C Chris Dingman. Dingman played a limited yet solid role on the Tampa Bay 4th line while Willis has played the role of depth more than not for TB.
In continuation of his first actions as General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jay Feaster sends Juha Ylonen to the Ottawa Senators in return for a 6th round draft pick in the 2002 entry draft and an enforcer by the name of André Roy. Roy's playing time has fluctuated and he has resided at times in John Tortorella's doghouse for taking bad penalties at bad times, yet Roy does provide depth and a physical element to the franchise.
January 2003 -- a 2004 fourth round selection was all it took for the Lightning to land another backstop. John Grahame was a huge upgrade for Tampa Bay over Kevin Hodson, who had been signed on the cheap by Jay Feaster during the off-season and retired again after this acquisition. Grahame provided the Lightning with a legit chance to rest the oft-overworked Khabibulin, and still have a shot at winning on goaltending alone. During the 2002-03 Playoffs, John Tortorella sitting Khabibulin for the final game of the Stanley Cup Conference Semifinals was a tell-tail sign of sending a message to Khabibulin ( who had been weak during the playoffs). Grahame's performance, some say the game of his life, proved Tampa Bay had a competent tandem in goal now.
2002 Entry Draft -- During his first draft, Jay Feaster earns the ire of Tampa Bay fans with two trades that would later turn into vital pieces of the puzzle for Tampa Bay. Ruslan Fedotenko is traded from Philadelphia to Tampa Bay for the Lightning's #1 pick that would turn into Joni Pikaten. While Joni has shown that he will be a force in the NHL at the blue line for the Flyers, Ruslan has proved his worth by becoming one of the reasons the Lightning are Stanley Cup champions. He could very well have won the Conn Smyth with his performance over the playoffs, scoring 17 goals and silencing his critics.
The other acquisition for the Bolts in a separate deal that was tied to the Fedotenko trade was Brad Lukowich. Lukowich played for the Dallas Stars but was not getting the chance to be the top 4 defensiveman he was capable of being. The trade with the Lightning gave him the chance to play in the top two pairings and Brad has made the most of his opportunity.
In another draft day deal, another 2nd round selection is sent away, this time to the St. Louis Blues, for left wing Cory Stillman. Stillman was to fill the void left by Vaclav Prospal who was a UFA at the time and who would later sign with the Mighty Ducks. Stillman provided a rugged scoring compliment to Vincent Lecavalier
January 2004 -- The Bolts were still questionable on defense at this point and beginning their true Cup Run. Jay Feaster said goodbye to former first-round draft pick Alexander Svitov, trading him to Columbus for Defensiveman Daryl Sydor. Sydor, who was lobbied for by former teammate Brad Lukowich, added strength to the blue line along with vital playoff experience.
There are players on this team I do not mention who are members of the Lightning Roster. Eric Perrin played only a little bit with the Lightning after his signing during the 2002-03 off-season (at the urging of Martin St. Louis). Darren Rumble played only 5 games in the 2003-04 season and only 17 in 2002-03.
And while I make mention of Richards, Afanasenkov and Cibak's drafting in 1998, I should make a point that it was an endeavor to get Richards signed and Richards, Affy and Cibak would not be making contributions to the roster until 2000-01.
But in essence, this is how the 2003-04 Champions were put together. Cullimore has since signed with Chicago, Cory Stillman has since been let go and been replaced by Vaclav Prospal. Oh, yeah, and every single one of these players are locked out by the owners. Looking back was fun while it lasted.