St. Petersburg Times
Tampa Bay Lightning

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If all else fails, trade Vinny

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002

It has been six months since the Lightning took Vinny Lecavalier off the trade market. But that hasn't stopped general managers from calling to see if the team has changed its mind.

It hasn't. Lecavalier will not be traded before Saturday's draft. He will not be traded before next season. In fact, Lightning general manager Jay Feaster has no plans to trade him at all.

The question is, why not?

Lecavalier, who asked for a trade in November, still wants to be moved, and his relationship with coach John Tortorella still is strained.

With Tampa Bay seemingly committed to the coach, the solution would appear to be a deal for two or three substantial players who could fill enough holes to get the Lightning into the playoffs.

But Feaster said proposed trades have been insubstantial because fellow GMs believe Lecavalier is "a distressed property" and they would be doing Tampa Bay a favor by "taking him off our hands."

Most important, though, Lightning management and ownership want Lecavalier in Tampa. Nikolai Khabibulin is a great goaltender, but ultimately they believe Tampa Bay goes as far as Lecavalier's great talent carries it.

The Lightning wants Lecavalier and Tortorella to work out their problems through mutual give-and-take. It also believes the freshness of a new season in which Lecavalier does not have a short-timer's mentality could break the ice.

But that best-case scenario is tenuously balanced with Tampa Bay's responsibility to put on the ice the best product it can.

Even with Lecavalier, the Lightning has been one of the worst teams in the league the past four seasons. If he is unhappy enough that it affects his development as a player which, in turn, holds back the team, why not shop him around? Package him with the No. 4 overall draft pick Feaster is so hot to trade and see what shakes out.

You say Lecavalier is only 21 and might become a superstar for another team? Great. Nothing wrong with both teams benefiting from a trade.

You say there are no guarantees a trade will pay the kind of dividends needed to get to the playoffs? There are no guarantees the Lightning makes it with him either.

There are off-ice considerations as well.

Is the Lightning willing to take on more payroll if a trade brings in established players? Though denied, speculation was the team's reluctance was one reason a Lecavalier trade was squelched last season.

Lecavalier also has been a dynamic, marketable presence and a favorite of fans the team does not want to alienate during a season-ticket drive.

The No. 1 overall pick of the 1998 draft gets about as much mail as his teammates combined. He was cheered at the Ice Palace through a terrible season, and he is the only Lightning player with at least 20 goals in three consecutive seasons, proving how dominant he could be if his head was clear and he was comfortable in his environment.

"The culture of the organization is ingrained in him," said former Whalers coach Pierre Maguire, a television studio analyst for TSN in Canada. "With him you already know what you've got. It's a real risk to trade that player because this guy is going to be a superstar somewhere."

Can it happen with the Lightning? Much depends on Lecavalier and Tortorella finding common ground.

That means more maturity on Lecavalier's part. He is going into his fifth season and is making an awful lot of money. He may not like his coach, but he must respect the position. It also means more flexibility from Tortorella in handling a player who does not respond well to confrontational coaching and deserves a measure of respect in return.

And if Lecavalier is, as Feaster says, such an integral part of the team, play him more than 17 minutes a game; on the power play and maybe even on the penalty kill.

"We need Vinny to be the superstar that we know he can be in order for this franchise to get to the next level and make it to the playoffs," Feaster said. "Ownership recognizes it. Management recognizes it. John recognizes it and, I believe, the team recognizes it."

But how long can Feaster wait? One month? Two? The view here is if the situation has not improved by December or January, and the fans are restless, the trade sign goes back up.

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