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Tampa’s Fedotenko used to proving skeptics wrong

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Bill Meltzer | correspondent
Feb 6, 2007, 12:00 PM EST

A select few hockey stars ride the fast track to NHL success. On the flip side, many others struggle for years to get a chance at the big time and then spend much of their careers proving themselves worthy of a spot in the lineup. Tampa Bay Lightning winger Ruslan Fedotenko, 28, is a prime example of the latter type of player. Every year, it seems, he must prove himself anew.

Fedotenko rose from humble hockey origins to be a crucial cog in Tampa’s drive to the 2004 Stanley Cup. Time and again, he rose to the occasion during the 2004 playoffs, scoring 12 goals. On June 7, 2004, Fedotenko scored both goals in the Bolts’ dramatic 2-1 victory over the Calgary Flames in the seventh and deciding game of the Stanley Cup Final. Last season, he scored 26 goals.

Once the NHL lockout ended in 2005, Fedotenko finally had a secure role in the NHL. He took an arduous journey to the NHL. He first left his native Kiev at age 17 to play in Finland (for TPS Turku Jrs. and Kiekko-67), Melfort of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and Sioux City of the USHL.

Signed by the Philadelphia Flyers as an undrafted free agent in 1999-2000, Fedotenko was demoted from the American Hockey League’s Philadelphia Phantoms to the Trenton Titans of the ECHL early in his rookie year. Working his way back up to AHL, Fedotenko shared the Phantoms rookie of the year award. The next year, he was called up to the big club for what initially figured to be a brief cup of coffee. Instead he played so well he never returned to the minors. After scoring 16 and 17 goals his first two years in Philadelphia, Fedotenko was dealt to Tampa in the trade that sent Philly the Bolts’ first-round pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, used to select defenseman Joni Pitkane

Fedotenko, whose value was questioned at the time the trade was made, paid dividends for Tampa. Immensely popular with his teammates for his sunny disposition and work ethic, Fedotenko boosted his goal total to 19 his first year with Tampa and then had his big playoff run the next year.

The goals haven’t come easily this year for “Rusty,” who underwent off-season surgery for the second-straight year to repair a torn labrum in his left hip, remove loose cartilage and repair scar tissue. His inconsistency and uncertain contract status have made him the subject of trade rumors.

“I'm going to be a UFA (unrestricted free agent) after the season, so I know it’s possible I could get traded. We'll just have to wait and see what happens. I realize this is a business, but for now I just have to deal with it," says Fedotenko, who signed a one-year, $1.65 million contract before the 2006-07 season.

Lightning President Ron Campbell has said the club’s salary budget for next season will likely be several million below the $40 million they’ve spent this season. That puts players like Fedotenko on thin ice if they don’t produce regularly.

Most of Tampa’s forward production this year has come from its “big three” of Martin St. Louis, Vincent LeCavalier and Brad Richards. Recently, St. Louis moved onto a line with Richards and left wing Eric Perrin. John Tortorella, the Lightning’s perfectionist head coach, has challenged his support cast -- including Fedotenko and Vaclav Prospal -- to step up their play.

“I'm not interested in hearing about chances," Tortorella told the Tampa Tribune. "I'm not interested in hearing about 'how hard I'm working.' We're interested about scoring a big goal, making a big play.”

This isn’t the first time Fedotenko has heard questions about his consistency from his coach or general manager. Before the season, Tortorella and Lightning GM Jay Feaster both made clear they expected Fedotenko to elevate his game on a more regular basis.

"He's a great guy, and he wants to be more involved and wants me to trust him more in different situations," Tortorella told the St. Petersburg Times. "It's just a matter of consistency. We've seen how great he can be and how clutch he can be, but is it going to be there at all times?"

Fedotenko got off to a strong start this season, scoring four goals and eight points in his first 10 games, including tallies on both ends of a home-and-home set with the defending Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes. But he followed that up with just one goal in his next 18 games, including 14 games in a row without a marker. After a mini-resurgence in December, Fedotenko scuffled again. He even ended up on the scratch sheet in a game against Carolina; a situation the usually affable player tersely declined to comment about after it happened.

The Ukrainian winger recently snapped a 13-game scoring drought with a beautiful one-timer of a power-play goal against his former club, the Philadelphia Flyers. His most recent goal prior to that came against Philadelphia on Dec. 28.

“Mentally, it gets to you a little when it goes this long,” he admits. “If you have one or two bad games, it’s no big deal to put it behind you and go forward. But you need to learn how to avoid those longer (bad) stretches. It felt good to get a goal again. You want to contribute. I know I can play better than I have shown.”

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I agree he will likely be elsewhere next season. The Lightning are unlikely to offer more than his current salary. He has scored only nine goals with the opportunity to play with great centers like Vinny and Brad. I do not know what he could bring at the trade deadline to improve the team. Certainly the team's need for a top-four defencemen will be unattainable for Feds. May as well hold on to him and hope he recaptures his 2004 playoff form.
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