|Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier was an NHL MVP candidate last season by scoring 52 goals and 102 total points.
has a pretty impressive list of accomplishments in his young NHL career. He’s already been the No. 1 overall draft pick, he’s won a Stanley Cup, and last season he took home his first Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal-scorer.
So what does a guy with all that on his résumé do for an encore this season?
Simple. Win another Cup.
Lecavalier is sitting on top of the hockey world after leading the NHL with 52 goals last season, and from his perch high in the frozen stratosphere, he sees a return to glory for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He looks at this season’s team and sees one that’s capable of taking home another championship next spring.
“I really do,” he said. “I think we have a great team. I think we have a great offensive team. The additions of some guys like Chris Gratton, who is a big guy and can score some goals, puts a lot of depth into our lineup. (Brad) Lukowich, who won the Cup with us in ’04, is back. Just to have these veteran players around, same core guys from last year, some younger guys coming up – I'm feeling very confident.”
The Lightning can add all the role players they want, but they have evolved into a team that very much goes as Lecavalier goes. Long considered among the elite talents in the game, last season was a defining moment for the former No. 1 draft pick when he led the league with 52 goals. It was a terrific accomplishment for a player who has had to live up to massive amounts of hype since being pickled No. 1 overall in 1998, but it was a feat the sharp-shooting Lecavalier continues to credit to his linemates, Martin St. Louis and Vaclav Prospal.
Last season was the first time the trio skated together for an extended period. The results included Lecavalier’s 52 goals and St. Louis’ 102 points -- eight more than the 94 he put up in 2003-04, when he was named the NHL’s MVP.
“I always say I think the secret was Martin St. Louis and Vaclav Prospal,” Lecavalier said of his big season. “I think our line really clicked last year. It was the first year we played together. We started off very well, but then you get this confidence and it just keeps on rolling and rolling. We just kept going.
“We had a very good power play,” he added. “You get a lot of opportunities on the power play and also penalty-killing playing with Marty. He's so fast, he's so aggressive, you’ve got no choice but to play like him when you're with him. He really brought a lot of consistency into my game.”
That consistency took time to develop; the Lightning had to make quite a run to the playoffs after entering January with an 18-19-2 record. Under head coach John Tortorella, Tampa rallied to go 26-14-3 the rest of the way to finish and take the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket. The Bolts lost in the first round to the New Jersey Devils in a six-game series that could have gone either way.
Things may not be as easy this season for the Bolts, who have seen the rest of the conference, and the Southeast Division in particular, bulk up with a long list of summer free-agent signings and trading activity. On the surface, it seems like the Washington Capitals might be poised to make a run at a playoff spot.
“I think from ’98, where people thought it was a weak division, to now, I think it's a great division,” Lecavalier said. “They get better every year. I think it's going to be a battle this year. Atlanta won it last year. But there are teams like Washington with (Alexander) Ovechkin, and Carolina we know is going to have a good year this year because they won the Cup and last year didn't go as well for them. We know they'll be ready. I think it's just a great rivalry. When you play teams eight times during the year, it definitely builds that rivalry and makes it tough to win the division. But I think it's a great division. It's getting better every year.”
The competition is getting stiffer every season. But that also applies to the face-to-face combat he endures as a result of his recognition as one of the top players in the world.
“It's definitely tough,” Lecavalier said of the opposition he faces every night. “I mean, when you play against – there's some pretty big defensemen out there. Pretty tall guys, 6-5, 6-6. You look in our division with Florida Panthers
, when you have (Bryan) Allen and (Jay) Bouwmeester, two really tall guys that can skate, they're very mobile, it's tough, it really is. You have to go through that. You have to be maybe more physical or play more simple, put the puck behind them instead of trying to deke them or something like that because it's probably not going to work. So play simple, try to do some two-on-ones against them.”
Keeping it simple and finding chemistry with his linemates have helped Lecavalier to reach the lofty heights he has reached in his young career. Though he’s only 27, he’s already accomplished a lot. Another accomplishment, though it doesn’t show up on any scoresheet, is that Lecavalier has helped turn Tampa, a non-traditional hockey market, into a rabid hockey town.
“For hockey in Tampa, I think obviously winning the Cup was pretty big,” he said. “But it really started before that. When I first got in the league in '98, it was great, but there wasn't that many people at the games. Now it's pretty much sold out every single game, and people are excited about the starting of the season. I think it really started the first time we played in the playoffs; people really saw what type of team we were. They're very supportive. I think every year it's getting bigger in Tampa, for sure.”
The bigger Tampa gets, it seems, the bigger Lecavalier gets. Or maybe it’s the other way around.