When the 2009 All-Star Game was in Montreal in January, whispers were rampant the Tampa Bay Lightning were about to trade Vinny Lecavalier back home to La Belle Province.
Now, we're back here again for the 2009 NHL Entry Draft and stories in Tampa Bay -- not originating from Montreal this time -- suggest that there's a giant arm-wrestling match between Lightning owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie and that one side of the two-headed ownership group wants to deal Lecavalier, while the other doesn't. All the publicity caused League officials to schedule a meeting with the Lightning owners.
Lightning GM Brian Lawton admitted he was caught off-guard by the stories.
"I was. I was. Sure. Absolutely," he said in an impromptu media conference at the Sheraton Centre Hotel in Montreal, adding that he remains the general manager of the Lightning, similar to Bob Gainey in Montreal or Brian Burke in Toronto or any other GM. "I make the decisions. It's a non issue. A non-factor to me."
Despite stories of money woes and personality clashes, Lawton stands as the voice of reason. He dismissed underlying pressures on him, saying it was like a "blip on the radar. Our team is moving ahead. I meet with our staff each day and say we have an opportunity in Tampa Bay and we intend on capitalizing."
So, it's Montreal. Like all of us, Lawton knows hockey is a religion. Not surprisingly, the question was asked: Anything new
on the Vinny front?
"Oh, I thought you were going to ask me about being the first pick in the draft here in Montreal 25 years ago at the old Forum," he laughed, before touching on anything substantial to the recent rumblings of a Lecavalier trade to Montreal. "I think I've said all there is to be said about Vinny and the Lightning. He's still a player on our roster and we're excited about that.
"It's status quo for us. No ... new ... information."
He said the last three words with emphasis.
When it got away from politics and the future of the Lightning, Lawton was at his best, especially when it came time to talk about Tampa Bay having the second pick in Friday's NHL Entry Draft. In spite of suggestions that this is the John Tavares- Victor Hedman draft, Brian said, "At the end of the day, I believe there are five incredible players in this draft that have an opportunity to play next year -- and even after that I think there are another five real strong players.
"We'll see what the Islanders do and we'll react accordingly."
Then he laughed when reporters tried to pull him into an argument over the value of a stud cornerstone defenseman like Hedman compared to the stud forward like Tavares.
"I love the top five players in this draft," Lawton said, whether you want to talk about Tavares, Hedman, Matt Duchene, Brayden Schenn and Evander Kane. Or even Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson or Jared Cowen. "Our scouts wanted me to find flaws in the top five guys -- and you know
something it's like trying to pick lint off a $1,000 suit."
In a state of the state of Lightning hockey address, Lawton raved about the goaltending of Mike Smith. It goes without saying that Vinny
Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis are still stars in this league and Ryan Malone put in a second straight solid season as a power forward at the NHL level. But it always comes back to getting younger, bigger, stronger and faster.
"My goals are all centered around the long-term health of this team," Lawton added. "We're not looking for a free lunch. Not looking for any shortcuts. I have no illusions about the change of direction with one trade. We're in this for the long haul."
It is just one year after the Lightning made Steven Stamkos the No. 1 overall pick in a hype-filled promotional campaign. Stamkos struggled from the start -- like the entire Tampa Bay team under coach Barry Melrose. Signs of a more competitive nature appeared under new coach Rick Tocchet.
"I think I've said all there is to be said about Vinny and the Lightning. He's still a player on our roster and we're excited about that. It's status quo for us. No ... new ... information." -- Lightning GM Brian Lawton on Vincent LecavalierStamkos finished with 23 goals and 23 assists, but had 18 goals and 10 assists from February 12 to season's end. Then, he was one of Canada's top players in the World Tournament in April, continuing his confidence step-up.
"The reality is he was a duck under water, working hard," said Lawton. "I always felt he was on track."
And, no doubt, the addition of a John Tavares or a Victor Hedman will also make Brian Lawton feel that the Lightning are more on track than ever.