tampabay.com

$27.5M for Vinny

Lightning makes sure Lecavalier stays in town the next four years.

By TOM JONES
Published August 17, 2005


TAMPA - Lightning center Vinny Lecavalier walked down the streets of his hometown of Montreal this summer and was accosted by hockey diehards everywhere.

"You better sign a one-year deal with the Lightning and then come to play for us next summer," Lecavalier said they told him. Us, in this case, meant the beloved Montreal Canadiens.

Meanwhile, back in Tampa, Lightning general manager Jay Feaster rubbed his temples and weighed the pros and cons of signing Lecavalier to a cheaper one-year deal or a more expensive multiyear deal.

In the end, Lecavalier and the Lightning wanted the same thing. Forget the Canadiens. Forget unrestricted free agency. Forget the one-year deal. Both wanted a contract that kept Lecavalier in a Lightning uniform for years.

That happened Tuesday when Lecavalier, the club's all-time leading scorer, signed a four-year deal worth $27.5-million, or an average of $6.875-million a season.

That leaves Martin St. Louis as the only big piece of the Lightning's puzzle left to be re-signed. St. Louis' agent, Lewis Gross, is expected to meet with Feaster on Thursday in Tampa to discuss what is believed to be a multi-year deal that could pay St. Louis, the 2003-04 NHL MVP, somewhere between $4-million and $5-million a year.

While Feaster is confident St. Louis will be re-signed, talks could get sticky now that Lecavalier is the highest-paid player on the team and in the same pay scale as Calgary's Jarome Iginla and Boston's Joe Thornton.

With the Lecavalier signing, Feaster said he has 17 players under contract for $31.296-million. The salary cap is $39-million, but the Lightning hopes to have a payroll less than that to allow for additions through trades and injury replacements.

But Feaster made Lecavalier, whom the Lightning has built around since making him the top pick of the 1998 draft, the team's priority of the offseason, and he was willing to open the checkbook to prove it.

"It just made sense, and this is huge for our organization to secure Vinny for four years," Feaster said. "When I sat down with (team president) Ron Campbell and we talked about giving Vinny a one-year deal, I said, "We might save money now, but if we do that, we need to be prepared to lose him next summer.' We couldn't take that risk."

Kent Hughes, Lecavalier's agent, said he and Feaster agreed that some team would have offered Lecavalier the maximum of $7.8-million a year next summer if Lecavalier had signed a one-year deal and become unrestricted.

"I say "teams,' as in plural - teams would've given him the max," Feaster said.

Lecavalier, 25, considered signing a one-year deal worth $5-million in order to test the market next summer, but chose security over possibilities. The sides agreed on the one-year deal last week, but kept working on a long-term deal.

"I like it in Tampa," Lecavalier said. "I like the team, the city, everything. My sister lives there. My parents like going down there. I have other family there. And I've been through a lot with this organization. I remember the days when there were 8,000 people watching us and we were the worst team in the league.

"Now we're the champions and I was a part of the growing process. I want to continue that. And who knows what the climate would've been like next summer? This is a good deal for both me and the Lightning."

With this deal, the Lightning proclaimed Lecavalier its marquee player, something Feaster felt comfortable doing after Lecavalier's 2004 postseason performance. Lecavalier had 32 goals and 34 assists during the regular season, but took his game to another level in the playoffs with nine clutch goals and seven assists in 23 games.

After several run-ins with coach John Tortorella, Lecavalier, Feaster believes, has developed into a reliable team player with leadership skills on and off the ice.

"We feel Vinny has grown leaps and bounds, and we believe he is on the cusp of being an elite player," Feaster said. "And we want him to be that player for us. We drafted him. We developed him. It's only right that we make sure he stays here with us."

OFFER RESCINDED: The Lightning withdrew its contract offer to right wing Nikita Alexeev, its first-round pick in 2000 who has appeared in 81 games with the Lightning. Alexeev signed a contract to play in his native Russia in 2005-06 and the Lightning believes Alexeev will play there instead of North America.