"He sat down with us, we explained our vision of the team and the organization. We look at Vinny, he's a guy that wants to live in Tampa when he's done playing. Whenever that is, we want to move him right into an adviser role or be an executive with us." - Tampa Bay Lightning co-owner Oren Koules on Vincent Lecavalier, June 2008.
Circumstances change, finances change, fortunes change, but here's what hasn't changed for Koules and the Lightning brain-trust: You can't sign Vinny Lecavalier to an epic contract as your franchise player, extol him with vocal reverence like the quote above and then even entertain the thought of trading him seven months later.
To do so would be to permanently risk whatever fragile trust remains between the fans and this sickly team. The fallout from such a decision would be gruesome; akin to a marathon of all the "Saw" movies, only with the boring chatty parts edited out.
As we mentioned in today's Puck Headlines, Darren Dreger of TSN reported on an internal debate amongst Tampa Bay management about trading Lecavalier, who signed an 11-year, $85 million contract extension in July. Despite once again dragging the Montreal Canadiens into the fray, the report differed from some rumors in the past because of its specificity: Like Brian Lawton combing the NHL for trade offers, and this nugget at the end:
On a final note, Lecavalier's agent Kent Hughes is flying into Tampa to talk to ownership and management to settle this down a little bit. At the very least, they want to give the process some time - decisions have to be made inside that group on whether to move him or continue to kick the tires.
As we said, the involvement of the agent elevates this rumor a bit, but in the end we still could be looking at eager teams inquiring about Lecavalier (a.k.a. "trade talks") rather than the Lightning actually and vigorously shopping him.
Over the weekend, both Hughes and Lecavalier himself denied there was anything afoot, with Vinny telling the St. Pete Times: "Oren did tell me I wouldn't be getting traded when I signed this summer ... It's Montreal. There are a lot of rumors going around."
An assurance from ownership, huh? Dan Boyle can tell you how binding that is ...
Hughes specifically told Pierre Lebrun of ESPN that he was assured by GM Brian Lawton that Lecavalier wasn't on the block; Lebrun also explained why trading Vinny sooner rather than later would be in the Bolts' best interests:
Technically, Lecavalier doesn't have a no-movement clause until July 1, when his 11-year, $85 million contract extension kicks in. However, the Lecavalier camp said it got a verbal commitment from Koules last summer that the team would not trade him. So, in effect, the Lecavalier camp believes it basically has a no-movement clause already.
About that contract: It's basically its own no-movement clause, according to Lyle "Spector" Richardson in The Hockey News:
If the Lightning truly wanted to dump salary by moving his contract - which will be worth more than $7 million per season starting in 2009-10 - they'd have to accept a considerable amount of salary in return to make the deal happen.
With more than half of the league's teams possessing payrolls for next season in excess of $35 million and concerns the salary cap for 2009-10 could flat-line or drop to nearly $50 million, the Lightning would have a difficult time finding suitors for Lecavalier's contract.
Under different economic circumstances, a superstar locked into a long-term deal with a $6.875 million cap hit annually might have been desirable. But "long-term" doesn't do Lecavalier's deal justice; it's pretty much even-money that a domestic flying car you can control with your mind will be produced in Detroit before Vinny reaches UFA status.
These rumors have come at a time when the financial wellbeing of teams in non-traditional U.S. markets is being used as a reason to move them, contract them or disperse their players. In reality, Lightning owners OK Hockey just brokered a new arrangement with former owners Palace Sports & Entertainment to "help maintain the stability of the organization's finances." Is that enough to quell these Lecavalier rumors?
Obviously, there are many, many reasons why Lecavalier will likely not be traded in the short term. But the question lingers: Should he be traded? Would the Lightning be better off with a package of players in exchange for their star?
No. Not at all.
You don't trade one of the top three offensive players in hockey. When he's healthy and motivated, Lecavalier belongs in that echelon. He's a remarkable talent, a "face of the franchise" guy and a legit star. If this franchise is going to return to Stanley Cup contention, it's going to be on the backs of Lecavalier, whatever Steven Stamkos becomes and whatever they get out of the draft this summer.
Any trade would also involve Tampa taking salary back; and it probably wouldn't be quality salary.
Maybe the Bolts revisit this in, say, five years, when the economics of the game have settled and the direction of this franchise has been established under the Koules/Barrie regime.
For now, trading Lecavalier would be a bad hockey move, an unrecoverable public relations blunder, and an indication that the new ownership group hasn't just mis-managed the franchise into the toilet, but down though the pipes and into the sewer.