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.