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Lightning's fate shadows Vinny's

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 20, 2002

BRANDON -- You look for something different. A spark, perhaps.

The center/franchise slid down the ice, inviting you to give him/it one more chance. Just behind was disappointment, underachievement. In front were new goals and a fresh start.

Do you buy in?

Do you risk it?

The player/team had the puck on his/its stick, and he/it wound in and out of traffic. Then he/it stopped, the ice spraying at his/its feet, and slid a quick pass to the left. A shot. A goal.

Do you watch?

Do you think "maybe"?

They are the same, Vinny Lecavalier and the Lightning. They are not so young anymore, and they are not yet special. They are somewhere in between, interesting but not yet accomplished, leaning on each other to make it right.

If you are skeptical of one or the other, or both, you have your reasons. The Lightning has been a frozen fish for years, a disappointment at every level of the franchise. Lecavalier, the promised one, spent the past two seasons watching his potential turn to smoke. A year ago they seemed ready to blame their disappointments on each other. Now they both seek validation, credibility, respectability.

Do you think it's possible?

Do you dare believe.

You look for something different. Maturity, perhaps.

An hour later, and Lecavalier stands at his locker, water in his hair, and his hair in his eye, and his eye on making sure this season is better than last. He is 22, and there are times he strikes you as very young and times he strikes you as very old.

"I feel confident again," Lecavalier says. "I never lost the joy of playing the game, but I wasn't as confident as I should be. Last year was hard for me."

The team and player almost lost each other a year ago. Lecavalier, a star from the time he had learned to strap on skates, a player who had grown used to the entitlement afforded to great potential, was suddenly rebuked, reduced and almost relocated. The captaincy had been given to him too early, but it still stung when it was taken from him, and he was dressed down in front of his team, and his shortcomings became the stuff of headlines.

For the first time Lecavalier was a disappointment, and the burden of it was overwhelming. At 18, at a time most kids aren't trusted to take a phone message, he was pronounced the savior of a franchise. Former Lightning owner Art Williams compared him to Michael Jordan, and for his first three seasons the franchise fawned over him.

That ended last season, when coach John Tortorella began to harp on Lecavalier becoming more complete, when then-general manager Rick Dudley let it be known that, for a price, Lecavalier could be had. That rift was much of the reason Lecavalier remains with the team while Dudley works for the Panthers.

Now, Lecavalier pronounced, the wounds are healed. In some ways, he says, he is stronger because of last season's disappointments. He says he and Tortorella are fine.

"We aren't going to have every meal together on the road," he says, "but we're going the same direction."

The team, too, looks for something different. A piece of flint in his eyes, for instance.

Tortorella says he saw it from the first practice this year. There was something different, something with a bit of attitude, in Lecavalier.

"I think he's going to have a great year," Tortorella says. "I really do. I think he wants to make a point. I think he's accepted the challenge. I think he's mentally ready."

Grade Lecavalier, despite the hype, despite the youth, and he's had two disappointing seasons. He's has scored at least 20 goals for three straight years, but as Lecavalier says, "Twenty goals isn't good enough."

Then again, he is 22. What were you doing at 22? Probably not becoming an elite player in the NHL.

"I think this is going to be his breakthrough year," Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk said. "I think his attitude has changed a little. He feels good about himself. He's confident. Everyone here knows how talented he is. Sometimes it takes a while."

The history of sports, all sports, is that bad teams devour young prospects. Fresh faces, new hope, are marketable items. So the teams draft young players, hype them and surround them with lesser ability. It isn't a good mix.

Look around the NHL. It's rare that a player dominates from the beginning. Usually there is a process.

When he was 23, Mike Modano had a very good year. It was his fifth year as a pro, and he surged to 50 goals with 43 assists. Steve Yzerman, in his fifth year, jumped to 50 goals and 52 assists. Brett Hull, in his fifth year, broke out with 72 goals and 41 assists.

There are others. Mark Messier's big jump came in his third year, Jeremy Roenick his fourth, John LeClair his seventh, Joe Sakic his eighth.

In his fifth season, you look for something different in Lecavalier. Arrival, perhaps.

After all this time, after all these adjectives, Lecavalier and the Lightning are skating parallel paths. They need each other. For slices of time, Lecavalier still can do things most players cannot. He can still take your breath away.

If the Lightning is going to be more, however, Lecavalier has to be more than a highlight tape. If they are to make a run toward the playoffs, he needs to become an elite player. He is no longer too young, too new or around too many average players to have an excuse.

"I know how good I can be," Lecavalier says. "I have some goals. They're in my head, and I'm not going to share. But I put a lot of expectations on myself."

That's fair. Everyone else does, too. Maybe this time it's justified.

You look at him, one last time, for something different. Wisdom, perhaps. Realization. Arrival.

Maybe, just maybe, something is there.

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