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Evolution of a new superstar

Vinny Lecavalier is finally becoming the player everyone thought he would be - but it has been anything but easy.

By TOM JONES
Published September 18, 2005


BRANDON - He doesn't look any different.

Same hair. Same face. Same broad shoulders and thick legs.

He hasn't gotten any taller or more handsome. He still talks about himself the same - long silences, humble shrugs, a smile that's awkward, not arrogant.

Yet there's a feeling that Lighting center Vinny Lecavalier has changed. Maybe the word is transformed. Or evolved. Yes, that's it. Evolved.

That the kid who struggled to kick-start his career, that the kid who felt the undue pressure of being called the "Michael Jordan of hockey" before he even played a game, that the rebel who played the oil to coach John Tortorella's water is stepping up to a higher plain.

Superstar.

Not just a good player. He already is that with two 30-goal seasons on the back of his hockey card. Not just a clutch player. He already is that with a Stanley Cup ring on his finger.

But a superstar.

"Vinny is at another level right now," said Pierre Maguire, hockey analyst for Canada's TSN and former NHL coach. "Vinny is about to explode on the scene. Everybody knows how good he is, but now he has become a more complete player."

Mike Brophy, senior writer for the Hockey News, said whatever everyone else is thinking.

"Lecavalier can take his game to the next level and be the best player in the league," Brophy said.

There's a quiet buzz among the Lightning, even Lightning executives who are slow to praise players. This could be the year Lecavalier throws his helmet into the MVP ring.

When a skinny 18-year-old Lecavalier was drafted No. 1 overall by the Lightning in 1998, the question wasn't if Lecavalier would become an elite player, but when. Tampa Bay brought him along slowly at first, then too quickly shortly thereafter. He went from getting a few minutes a game to team captain within a year. Under former Lightning coach Steve Ludzik, Lecavalier was free of reins, allowed to do on the ice what he wanted, when he wanted, where he wanted.

Then Tortorella took over. Tortorella wanted Lecavalier to be more of a complete player, more of a team player. Lecavalier thought he was all of that and felt unfairly singled out. The more Tortorella yelled, the more Lecavalier wanted out.

Then the whispers started. Maybe Lecavalier is overrated. Maybe he's too selfish, too interested in what there is to do off the ice instead of what needs to be done on the ice. Maybe he'll never be a special player. Good? Sure. Great? Hardly.

But then the Lightning surrounded Lecavalier with more talent. Martin St. Louis and Ruslan Fedotenko arrived. Brad Richards grew into a star. Nikolai Khabibulin stood in goal. And, suddenly, the Lighting had a Cup contender.

And leading the way was Lecavalier. Maybe something snapped into place during the Montreal series when he scored a slew of highlight-reel goals. Maybe it was when he turned into a sledgehammer against Philadelphia, knocking down everything he hit. Teammates point to picking a fight with Calgary's Jarome Iginla in the Stanley Cup final.

* * *

But something happened to take Lecavalier to another level.

"It's not one particular thing," Tortorella said. "It's understanding team concept, that there are other parts to the game. ... If you look at Vinny now compared to where he was four years ago, he's beginning to turn into a man."

Ask Lecavalier about all this and he seems, for a moment, insulted.

"I think my career was going pretty good before the Cup year," Lecavalier said. "I think I just learned more, got more experience. And the team got better. When a team wins the Cup, everyone gets credit that they weren't getting before.

"I don't think I became a different player. I'm still the same guy now."

* * *

But something happened. Example: While playing in Russia during the lockout, Lecavalier actually said he missed playing Tortorella's "system," a word that Lecavalier used to spell with four letters.

Tortorella noticed the difference during the team's Cup run.

"All of us - the media, the players, the coaches, the area - saw how much his game stepped up," Tortorella said. "We certainly want more development as we go along. There's always more. And I think that's the way he feels. He came into camp in good shape and you can see a focus about him."

A focus to claim the title of "Best Player in the World?"

"Sure, who doesn't want to be considered that?" Lecavalier said. "But saying you want to be that and doing it is two different things. The best thing I can do is not worry about that stuff and just go out and play the best I can."

The last time hockey was played, Lecavalier was the best player in the world. During the World Cup of Hockey in 2004, Lecavalier was named MVP.

"That was great for my confidence," Lecavalier said. "I wasn't even sure I would get invited to be on the team. Then I thought for sure I would be sitting in the stands. I end up playing and, well, it was just a short tournament, but it was nice.

* * *

Another confidence builder: the Canadian Olympic camp.

"He was unstoppable," Maguire said. "Playing with St. Louis and (Detroit's Kris) Draper, it was absolutely awesome to watch. Watching him dominate against the best players Canada has to offer was unbelievable."

Of course, Tortorella isn't ready to hand him the Hart Trophy just yet. In fact, it's likely the Lightning coach will cringe if he sees this article. After complimenting Lecavalier's maturity, his focus and adaption to the team concept, he stopped himself.

"Having said that - and there's always a "having said that' - there is plenty to go," Tortorella said. "There are plenty of more lessons to be learned, not just by him, but by all of our young players."

Young players. Hard to believe, but Lecavalier fits that bill. He's only 25. Even harder to believe is he has played only six seasons. Maybe that explains the fits and starts in his career while the Lightning's bumpy road finally smoothed out. He figures the team is still on the rise and he is just coming into his prime. He'll spend those prime years in Tampa Bay, having recently signed a four-year, $27.5-million contract - a deal that makes him the team's highest-paid player.

So, is this the year Lecavalier becomes a superstar?

"I'm not thinking about that," Lecavalier said. "I think I've had a good career so far and I hope it gets better. I expect it to."