Within two hours of the announcement that Tampa Bay Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier was going to be bought out, there was a (Photoshopped) picture of the pending unrestricted free agent in a Montreal Canadiens jersey on the Reseau des sports website.
That’s a pretty impressive turnaround for a whirlwind of unadulterated speculation to take shape. Probably helping it along? Apparently, word directly from Lecavalier’s mouth is that he, as le Journal de Montreal puts it anyway, “wouldn’t say no to Montreal.”
Forget the fact that’s not exactly what he said via a teleconference on Thursday. I mean, nothing should get in the way of a hometown hero returning to Montreal, not even 28 other NHL teams.
I’m open to playing in Montreal, but I’m not closing the door on other teams. I don’t have a list [of teams] yet, but I’m open to the idea of playing wherever.
So, Lecavalier wasn’t saying he would love to play in Montreal, just that it’s a possibility. For the record, so is Montreal acquiring his former teammate and reigning Art Ross Trophy-winner Martin St. Louis.
St. Louis may have a no-movement clause, but, hey, what Francophone wouldn’t waive it for the chance to return to a province in which the media sets such high expectations of Quebecois players that they already have them in Habs jerseys before they've even signed a contract?
The RDS column was written by former Hab Mathieu Darche, who actually was a teammate of Lecavalier’s in 2007-08, when the latter scored 92 points.
Coincidentally (or not, considering that Darche was one of many fringe NHLers to make the Lightning that year), that was the season the Lightning bottomed out. Finishing last in the entire league, the Lightning got to pick Steven Stamkos first overall in the draft, thereby commencing Lecavalier’s slow descent into, essentially, obsolescence as a No. 1 center (at least as far as Tampa is concerned).
It was also after that season that Lecavalier was ill-advisedly awarded his just-bought-out 11-year, $85-million extension, and his decline in production became a noticeable trend after 2006-07’s career-high and league-leading 52 goals (108 points).
The emergence of Stamkos as a bona-fide superstar may have something to do with the fact that Lecavalier’s production has dropped significantly. After all, during Lecavalier's career 2006-07 season, he averaged 22:36 in ice time. Last season, playing behind Stamkos, he averaged just 17:52 and scored just 32 points in 39 games. So, it is a reason—but it’s far from the only one.
Lecavalier actually averaged 22:57 in 2007-08 (more than during his Rocket Richard Trophy-winning season), scoring 12 less goals than during the previous year. In 2008-09, Stamkos’ first in the NHL, during which he struggled mightily due to a lack of both ice time and the coaching staff’s confidence in him, Lecavalier also struggled, scoring just 67 points (29 goals). His points per game decreased further in each of the next four seasons, and there's little reason to believe it would go up again now if he were to become a Hab.
Another cause for concern would be the growing frequency of injuries. In each of the last three seasons, he has missed the equivalent of over 15 games (nine games missed over a 48-game season translates into 15). As such, even if Lecavalier were able to stay healthy, he most definitely isn’t the same player who peaked a half-decade ago. He’s obviously older and less effective.
Sure, he’s still a good player who could help out the Canadiens, but at what cost? In terms of actual numbers, it’s a good bet it wouldn’t be nearly as much as the $10 million he would have been owed this upcoming season. However, he’ll probably still be looking for around half that amount. Still, a $5 million or even a $4 million salary cap hit over several years—he is still looking for a relatively long-term deal—is a lot to invest in a player whose best years are behind him.
There’s also little denying the Habs are incredibly deep at center. Lecavalier is a definite upgrade over the team’s current first-line center, David Desharnais, but he isn’t necessarily better than Tomas Plekanec, who plays a more complete game.
One can also make a pretty good argument that Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk are currently more worthy of that No. 1 spot than Lecavalier. At the very least, they’re ready for more ice time. Ice time that Lecavalier would potentially take away from them.
There is little doubt that Lecavalier is a good player who brings size, grit and scoring ability, all of which could help the Habs out immensely. But he’s also 33 and on the downswing of his career. In the grand scheme of things, the Habs just don’t need him.
So, Habs fans shouldn’t get too excited about Lecavalier wearing a real Montreal jersey soon rather than just a Photoshopped one. It may look good on paper, but there are just too many reasons why it wouldn’t work out in practice.