Game Misconduct: The Vincent Sweepstakes

By Tony Bryson

Lightning Hope for a Princely Return on Investment

It’s not much fun working for the Tampa Bay Lightning right now. The boss isn’t in a very good mood. Rick Dudley is a little steamed right now and no one is sure what has put his mood in such a bad state. It could be the fact that his shopping of Vincent Lecavalier has gone public, or maybe just Vince’s (le) cavalier approach to the game since signing a fat new deal at the start of the season. What ever it is, Rick is not a happy camper.

Then again, who could really blame a guy for being in a surly mood when he’s contemplating dealing away a guy that was called, “the Michael Jordan of hockey” by previous team owner Art Williams? Especially when he’s completely unsure of what he can, or should, expect back in return. There have been a number of high profile players change teams in the past nine months, and Dudley wants to be sure he makes a good deal. So what is a good deal for Tampa? Should they go after one guy, or try and scramble for as many guys as they can get? It’s an interesting conundrum, one worth examining and picking apart.

There are those that look at the player movement in the past year to point to a trend of players not returning what they traditionally have in trade. Jaromir Jagr going to Washington for three unproven prospects is usually the first example that is trotted out to defend this stance. If one of the best players in the world were to garner such a poor return, why would an unproven pup like Lecavalier return more? Well, those that use that argument aren’t dealing with the present day realities of the NHL, but basing their argument on values attained at the water cooler. At no time does that argument address issues like, access to market, affordability, long-term development, etcetera, all items I’ll touch on later. It only addresses the comparison factor of how many points Jagr scored versus that of Lecavalier, and the perceived value of the two players. Fortunately more goes into a deal these days than just measuring the past accomplishments of a player.

General Managers have a very tough task ahead of them when they start talking trade in today’s NHL. They must worry about budget constraints, salary structures, roster limits, organizational contract limits, contract lengths, and the number of years to free agency for players. It’s not like the good old days when you could throw a whole bunch of guys together and grab another player, you have to really find a fit for your team, and sell a potential fit to the team you’re dealing with. Fortunately for Rick Dudley, all of these issues work in his favor. The player he is trying to deal, Lecavalier, is pretty cheap and could fit into almost any team’s budget and salary structure, will easily fit into another team’s roster, after the trade of players, and will allow the other organization room within the 50 contract limit. The added bonus for any team acquiring Lecavalier is the fact that he is in the first year of a four-year deal and is still eight years away from free agency. What more could a team ask for when they are looking at grabbing a player in trade? From a business perspective this would be a sweet heart of a situation to be getting into, but what about from a hockey standpoint?

Vincent Lecavalier has his detractors out there. They think he’s a whiner and a guy who has not taken that next step. I sometimes have to wonder if these people bother to watch the games. Lecavalier is an incredible talent that has been expected to shoulder the load for an entire franchise since he was drafted three years ago, and made captain at the tender age of nineteen. Sure, he hasn’t started to score at a point a game clip as was expected, but has anyone looked at the Tampa Bay Lightning? There is good reason for them being called the “Frightening” around town. They have one of the scariest lineups in the league. You think that Eric Lindros would be scoring at the clip he is if he were teamed up with Ben Clymer and Jimmie Olvestad? Not on his mother’s life! This is just indicative of the talent that Lecavalier has had to play with during his tenure in Tampa.

Now imagine if you had to live with the media circus that the Lightning likes to refer to as a front office. Imagine being the only bright light in an organization so dysfunctional that it makes you realize the Boston Bruins are actually operated pretty damn well. You don’t think that might just have a minor impact on your ability to stay focused? That Lecavalier has managed to do what he has done is a minor miracle to me. The average player would have melted down and washed out by now. This kid has been so poorly handled it’s amazing that he has developed to the point he has. At twenty-one years of age, Lecavalier is a two-time twenty goal scorer and has almost breached the seventy point barrier in a single season. Those numbers are accomplishments for most players in their careers, and Lecavalier does that before he reaches the age of majority. He did this pretty well all by himself. The scary part of the whole equation is that he is still an untapped resource and is only going to get better.

So why would Dudley want to trade such a player? What should he demand in return for this wunderkind? Is it really worth dealing away Lecavalier? First of all it is probably smart to say that Lecavalier does not need to be dealt away. He is signed long term, is very affordable, and makes a big contribution on and off the ice. The Lightning could sit on Lecavalier and benefit for years to come as he develops. Having said that, there is a huge advantage to dealing away the budding young star. Tampa could take a big step toward becoming respectable over night and building their team quickly toward becoming a contender. Lecavalier could very well return three or four players that could change the fortunes of the Lightning for years to come. The Lightning could pull a Nordique and rally one player into several that change the face of the organization from that of a loser, to that of an up and coming team.

Tampa has a very interesting organization. They have strength in goal and depth on defense. They have some very good young prospects on their way that could develop into topflight players on the forward lines. What they lack is some veteran leadership that can still play. They are missing a couple of players in the 25-28 year old range that can mold the players into a team and into a winner through their example on and off the ice. Lecavalier could very well return a player of this type, and then some. Dudley could make a move that improves his team and puts it on a new track. So who does he shop Lecavalier to, and what does he ask in return?

The second part of that question is easier to answer. Dudley should set out to find a mix of players that will make the team better now, and in the future. Depth would be nice, but finding the right players that take the team in the right direction, and on their way to developing a winner, is more important at this point. His goal should be to acquire at least two players for Lecavalier. Number one, a 25-28 forward who can play on the top two lines, score 20-30 goals a year, and lead on and off the ice. A Michael Peca type player would be a perfect fit. Number two, a young player that is on the verge of busting out and taking his game to the next level. An Alex Tanguay type player. Accompanying either one of these two players would likely be a prospect who has very good potential to be a scorer, and definitely fit on the top lines. A Chuck Kobasew type player. This mix should be Rick Dudley’s minimum goal and should be the minimal offer accepted. So who would be interested in Lecavalier, and what can they offer?

Because of Lecavalier’s salary, age and potential, there is not a single team in the NHL that should not be interested in trying to put a package together. This goes back to explaining the reason why Jagr went for so little. His salary limited the market that could afford his salary, so reduced the asking price on him. Lecavalier is very affordable, so is more accessible to all markets. Twenty one year old Vincent is also projected to be a budding superstar, so teams will be more inclined to give up a lot to get him. Lecavalier will be around for at least eight years before free agency comes a calling. All these factors make him attractive to twenty-nine teams in the NHL, and all could be in the position to start bidding. In this group there will be favorites and there will be pretenders.

Potential Suitors:

New Jersey: The Devils are in a serious need of a shake up. They have the players that could very well be of interest to Dudley that could take the team in a winning direction. Scott Gomez is on the outs in Jersey so he could be a player that is used off the top. The guy Dudley would probably like is Jason Arnott. It is unlikely that Lou Lamerillo would ship out the big center. Look for the Devils to offer up a combination of Scott Gomez, Brian Rafalski and Christian Berglund.

Ottawa: Wouldn’t the Senators be intimidating featuring Vincent Lecavalier and Jason Spezza as their top two centers over the next half-decade? Marshall Johnson must have that thought dancing in his head. Rumor has it that he is prepared to part with a combination of Radek Bonk, Chris Phillips and Tim Gleason to make it happen. I think that Gleason is a bad fit for the Bolts, but this is a very interesting offer.

Colorado: It is no secret that Pierre Lacroix has been a long time admirer of Lecavalier. He offered Tampa Bay four first round picks in an attempt to acquire the rights to him in his draft year. Now that he is being shopped, it only makes sense that Lacroix try his luck again. He has a mix of players that could very well interest the Lightning. Lacroix could package together Steve Reinprecht or Chris Drury or Alex Tanguay, along with a prospect like Radim Vrbata to attract Dudley’s attention.

Philadelphia: Bobby Clarke has some pieces that he could put together to go after Lecavalier. Simon Gagne or Keith Primeau would be very attractive to any team looking for a quick increase in skills. Add in Justin Williams and Pavel Brendl and the package could get interesting quickly.

Toronto: No trade rumor in the NHL can go by without the Maple Leafs being involved in some fashion. The Leafs like to think they are a favorite, but in reality they have nothing of interest to trade. I seriously doubt that Rick Dudley is going to take a second look at any offer that includes Nik Antropov and Jeff Farkas as the centerpieces.

Edmonton: The Oilers could use a second line center, and wouldn’t Lecavalier make an awesome choice. They have a lot of depth at forward that would allow them to make a trade, but none that will ever play on the top two lines for an NHL club. The rumor coming out of Edmonton is that they are prepared to offer Tom Poti, Marty Reasoner, Jani Rita and Alex Semenov for Vince. An interesting offer, but doesn’t address a single need for the Lightning.

Montreal: Like Toronto, any rumor in the NHL that includes a francophone naturally includes Montreal. Unfortunately Montreal is in the same boat as Toronto. They really can’t put together a package that addresses the needs of the Lightning without gutting their entire developmental system. It would be great to see a francophone superstar leading the Canadiens back to respectability, but based on what the Habs have to offer it likely won’t be Vincent Lecavalier.

As stated earlier, there are other teams in the NHL that could very well enter into the bidding was and make it interesting. Dudley would love to see a bidding war break out and have numerous suitors get involved, driving the price out of this world. What is likely to happen is that a majority of teams make token submissions of proposals and then slip from the radar. The teams will continue to thin out until there are all but three or four serious bidders on the floor. Someone will make an offer that Dudley can’t refuse, and the transaction will be completed with much fanfare.

Vincent Lecavalier will have a new team, and the Tampa Bay Lightning will take a large step in their evolutionary process toward respectability. Far be it from me to make a prediction as to who may come away with Lecavalier when the dust clears, but I would never under estimate the resolve of Pierre Lacroix when he sets his sights on a player. There has been speculation surrounding the idea that Lecavalier could blossom under the tutelage of Joe Sakic, and Lacroix might just buck up to see if that comes to fruition. What ever does happen, it’s going to make for a very interesting few weeks leading up to Christmas!