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Jay Feaster's Blog: Final camp cuts are never easy

Shane Willis was cut by the Tampa Bay Lightning a season after being acquired by the team. (Photo by Bruce
Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

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Shane Willis was cut by the Tampa Bay Lightning a season after being acquired by the team. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

With 26 NHL teams having to submit their final 23-man active rosters on Oct. 8, you can bet GMs and coaches will be spending a lot of time agonizing over those final cuts.

While the first cuts out of training camp are generally pretty easy to make (guys going back to junior, players attending their first pro camps, etc.), the decisions for the final roster are not as simple. A host of factors come into play including contract status, positional needs, team chemistry, risk of waiver exposure, salary cap implications, and sometimes, organizational politics.

In Tampa Bay, two major themes guided our thinking. First, the active roster had to consist of players who “deserved” to be there and not players who felt a birthright to a spot due to type of contract (one-way versus two-way) or draft status (top-10 pick). We selected our players, and consequently made cuts, on the basis of merit, no matter how it made the GM look or how many eyebrows would be raised. Second, once the decision was made on who we were going to cut, we felt we owed it to the players to communicate with them openly, honestly and in person. (More on that point in my next blog installment.)

Shortly after I took over as Lightning GM in February of 2002, I traded popular goalie Kevin Weekes to Carolina for Shane Willis and Chris Dingman. Not exactly a “sexy” deal and certainly not one many pundits credited me with “winning.” Willis played 21 games for us down the stretch and recorded seven points. Dingman was the tough grinder we expected and played 14 games for us. We finished 13 games under .500. 

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When camp opened in September of 2002, Willis was on a one-way contract and considered by many to be a lock to make our team. He also had to pass through waivers to be assigned to the minors. Unfortunately, he did not make the team during camp. Merit dictated he be assigned to the minors.

But surely we wouldn’t risk losing him on waivers, particularly considering Weekes had gone to Carolina and helped lead them to the Stanley Cup final! Imagine how it would make me look as a new GM.

Nonetheless, we were true to our principles. Merit dictated our actions and if the GM and coach weren’t prepared to be honest in the selection process, how could we expect our players to trust us and buy into our system? Fortunately for us, Willis cleared and we assigned him to the American League. We won the division that season and a playoff round, too – both franchise firsts – and we laid the groundwork for what would follow in 2004. Merit selections and honesty helped pave the way.

Jay Feaster is a former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he took over in 2002 and helped build the team into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. As he did last season, he will blog on THN.com throughout the 2008-09 campaign. Read his other entries HERE.

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