TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – The Tampa Bay Lightning took another step to keep the core of their Stanley Cup championship team together Wednesday, signing Martin St. Louis to a six-year contract worth more than $31 million.

The 30-year-old right wing had 38 goals and 56 assists for 94 points during the 2003-04 season to win the Hart Trophy as MVP, Art Ross Trophy (scoring leader) and Lester B. Pearson Award (MVP as chosen by the players) while leading the Lightning to their first league title.

“I’ve said it many times in the past and I continue to maintain that Martin St. Louis is the heart and soul of our hockey team,’ general manager Jay Feaster said.

“Dating all the way back to the summer of 2004, there was never a moment when we were not firmly committed as an organization to getting Marty signed long term. The fact that he was willing to take less and give up the chance to explore unrestricted free agency demonstrates his commitment to our team, his teammates, our franchise and our incredible fans.”

Last week, the Lightning signed forward Vincent Lecavalier to a four-year, $27.5 million contract.

Lecavalier’s deal enabled the club to avoid the prospect of losing one of its two front-line stars to unrestricted free agency next year. But it also limited the amount of money the team could offer St. Louis under the NHL’s new $39 million salary cap.

Feaster was determined to hold on to St. Louis, though, especially after losing star goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who signed a four-year, $27 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this month.

St. Louis conceded there were times, especially during the past week, that he thought he might have played his last game for Tampa Bay.

He could have opted to sign a one-year contract and become an unrestricted free agent after next season, but said from the start he preferred a long-term deal as long as it was fair.

“Once we lost Habby, I think it was very important to keep the rest of the core together. But it’s one thing to keep the core together. You also want the core to be happy and not sign just any offer,” St. Louis said by telephone.

“It’s been a tough week, a tough summer to be honest. I’ve never been through anything like this. … It feels good to get it done.”

The 5-foot-9 native of Laval, Quebec, signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent before the 2000-01 season and has 105 goals and 239 points in 295 games since joining the Lightning.

AP-ES-08-24-05 1943EDT

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