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Lecavalier living up to pre-draft expectations

Thursday, 01.03.2008 / 12:30 PM / 2008 NHL All-Star Game

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

Lightning all-star center Vincent Lecavalier is considered by some to be the NHL's best player.
It was June 1998, just after the Tampa Bay Lightning selected 18-year-old Vincent Lecavalier with the first-overall pick of the NHL Entry Draft, that Art Williams, the team’s owner at the time, made this stunning statement.

He said Lecavalier could be the Michael Jordan of hockey.

“I think he can have the same impact on the game that Jordan has on basketball,” Williams said. “He's the best prospect in the game today, a guaranteed Hall of Famer.”

While Lecavalier might not be on Jordan’s track, the Hall of Fame looks more and more like a reality at some distant point in the future.

It’s not hyperbole to say Lecavalier is the best player in the game. Visitors to TSN.ca certainly believe so, voting the 28-year-old native of Ile Bizard, Quebec to the top spot in a recent poll, ahead of players like Sidney Crosby and Nicklas Lidstrom.

He leads the NHL with 58 points in just 40 games, and he ranks in the top 10 in the League with 26 goals (fourth) and 32 assists (seventh). He’s on pace to set new career highs with 53 goals, 65 assists and 119 points.

Lecavalier’s won a Stanley Cup, a Rocket Richard Trophy, and is at the top of everyone’s list of Hart Trophy candidates for this season.

But it hasn’t always been as easy as it looks today for Lecavalier. To reach the sweet success he’s having now, you have to understand just how bitter the early days of his career were.

“I think the first four or five years were really tough,” Lecavalier said. “We couldn’t get more than 20 wins in a year. It was tough on me, tough on the team, the organization, everybody.”

He still produced, but the 23 goals per season he was averaging for his first five seasons was not what was expected from a player who was supposed to be the Michael Jordan of hockey.

It didn’t help that the additional burden of being team captain was given to him a month shy of his 20th birthday. At the time the “C” was stitched onto his sweater, he was the youngest captain in League history.

Not long after the “C” went on, John Tortorella replaced Steve Ludzik as coach. Immediately, it became a bad mix. Tortorella pushed and prodded Lecavalier to be a more complete player. Lecavalier fought back, playing the style of game that got him picked No. 1 overall.

“He was an offensive talent and that’s what he wanted to do,” said Jay Feaster, who was hired as an assistant general manager not long after Lecavalier was drafted. “You’re dealing with a player who was a true star and had been treated that way. When you go back to when he was drafted, the owner called him a sure-fire Hall of Famer and the Michael Jordan of hockey, but I believe his very first year as a pro, in 1998, I think (coach) Jacque (Demers) did a very good job of not putting too much on Vinny as far as expectations. Vinny didn’t start playing 22 minutes a game, it was 10 minutes and 16 minutes and 18 minutes. Jacques really was mindful of the superstar status he had, and Jacques made sure he didn’t push him and buy into all that. But after that first season, Jacques was out and Steve Ludzik came in, and Ludzik figured as long as Vinny was happy, his job was safe. Then Ludzy’s out and in comes John Tortorella, who couldn’t care less about his happiness, it was all about the team. It was a dramatic shift.”

Tortorella replaced Ludzik in January 2001, and immediately his relationship with Lecavalier began to unravel. Tortorella pulled no punches with his star, and Lecavalier chaffed under the whip.

The relationship hit rock bottom prior to the 2001-02 season. Lecavalier sat out part of training camp in a contract holdout. When he came back, Tortorella stripped him of the captaincy, and then scratched him from the home opener.

Lecavalier was stunned.

Feaster said Lecavalier came to him: “He said, ‘I don’t know what he’s trying to prove to me. He says you’re not captain, you’re not playing at home.’”

GM Rick Dudley began investigating a trade, but when he was fired and replaced by Feaster in February 2002, any thoughts of a trade left with Dudley.

“I was here when Rick contemplated trading him,” said Feaster. “There’s no way we ever would have won the Stanley Cup had Vinny been traded away. It would not have happened.”

Rather than divorce the pair, Feaster brought them in for couples counseling.

“When I took over as GM, my first meeting was with Vinny, and I said; ‘I’m not going to be the GM who trades the best player in hockey,” said Feaster, “and I said I’m also not going to be the guy who fires John Tortorella because I think he’s the best man for this team.’ And I told John Tortorella that he wasn’t getting fired, but that I wasn’t going to trade Vinny.

“John and I are both parents. I said to him that if our kids aren’t doing the right thing, we don’t bundle them up, put them in a basket, leave them on the neighbor’s porch, ring the bell and run away.

“I said; ‘Wherever we go, whether it’s to paradise or we’re on the Titanic, John and Jay and Vinny are going to be on the deck chairs looking at each other. And to their credit, they both believed. Vinny believed that I wasn’t going to trade him and I wasn’t going to fire Torts, and John believed that he was safe and that I wasn’t going to trade Vinny.”

Left with no other choice than getting along, Lecavalier finally started to go along with Tortorella’s program, and things immediately changed. Tampa went from League doormat to elite squad; in 2003 the Lightning made it to the second round of the playoffs before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Devils.

The next season, the Lightning, thriving in Tortorella’s up-tempo, attacking style, cruised to the top spot in the Eastern Conference. And Lecavalier was leading them, scoring 33 goals and 78 points in 2002-03 and 32 goals and 66 points in 2003-04. And after going a combined minus-88 his first four seasons, he was a plus-23 in 2003-04.

“I think Vinny began to understand what John was trying to do,” said Feaster. “It wasn’t a matter of him not liking Vinny or being hard on Vinny. He was trying to help Vinny become the best player he could be.”

Lecavalier was one of the best players on the ice for that championship Lightning team. Lifting the 35-pound trophy became all the sweeter after his previous experiences.

“Once we turned it around, it was such a good feeling,” said Lecavalier. “We worked so hard for it, and winning the Cup, that was the ultimate dream. … Just such a turnaround, so satisfying we did it. Winning the Stanley Cup, it just feels really good from where I started.”

Vincent Lecavalier was the first overall selection in
the 1998 NHL Draft, and has 259 goals and 568 points in 669 regular season games with Tampa.

Lecavalier now is just hitting his stride as a star in the League. Besides his scoring, he’s playing a more physical game, using his 6-foot-4, 219-pound body to every possible advantage.

“We played Philly (in the 2004 Eastern Conference Final), and I remember how physical (Keith) Primeau was and how physical he was. I’m not as big as Keith, but he played so physical that it made a big difference in that series. We won, but it was such a good series. Seeing this guy go, I thought maybe it would help me to be more physical.”

He also – remarkably – learned to appreciate Tortorella. Lecavalier spent the lockout season playing in Russia, but was disappointed by the outcome.

“I think in Russia, they brought a team in together and I don’t think it went very well,” he said. “It wasn’t the same team aspect we had when we won the Cup. When you go someplace else and see how it is, it’s great to come back and get that team aspect back. We really grew as a team, and to come back it felt good. It made me realize how important team chemistry is.”

“When Vinny experienced what he went through in Russia during the lockout, he learned that there was some method to John Tortorella’s madness,” said Feaster. “The big thing was, the more committed he became to the defensive aspect of the game, and the more committed he became to doing the little things that John was asking him to do, the offensive chances were coming more. It was the sound, defensive two-way play that would lead to the offense.”

And that offense has come in plentiful amounts since the lockout ended. After a 35-goal season in 2005-06, he scored a career-best 108 points and 52 goals to win his first Rocket Richard Trophy. This season, he had a remarkable streak of eight straight multi-point games in November, and he’s had at least two points in 22 of 40 games this season.

Lecavalier has transformed himself from a pass-first playmaker to high-scoring power forward, and perennial All-Star.

“I just started believing the more you shoot the more go in, and I started shooting more and things started going in,” he said simply.

And as his numbers have gone up, so has his relationship with the coach who many thought he could never play for.

“It’s really over,” Lecavalier said of his issues with Tortorella. “The last two years have been going very well. I think people made a bigger deal than it really was. I think that first year we were together we had some rough times, but after that, I think it got better and better. We’re way past that point. I think we have a good relationship.”

Feaster related a story from a recent Lightning trip to Canada, when Tortorella went into one of his patented rants about Lecavalier’s play. But rather than lambaste his superstar, he gave him the ultimate praise.

“John commented that he (Lecavalier) is the best player in hockey right now,” said Feaster. Paraphrasing Tortorella, Feaster said; “‘Five or six years ago you people in the media were anointing him at that time, and at that time we didn’t think so. Now you’re anointing Sidney Crosby, but what you’re missing is that Lecavalier now is what you thought he was then.’”

He might not be the Michael Jordan of the NHL, but 10 years after he was saddled with the label, he’s living up to all the hype.

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com.

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