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Former Tampa Bay Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier (Dirk Shadd/AP)
Former Tampa Bay Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier (Dirk Shadd/AP)

Is the timing right for Lecavalier in Montreal? Add to ...

Now this is an interesting development.

Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin has insisted loudly and frequently that you don’t build a championship team through free agency, but the impending availability of Tampa Bay captain Vinny Lecavalier is about to put his disdain of the UFA market to the test.

It’s not every day that a bona fide Francophone superstar player – even one on the downslope of his career – becomes available for nothing.

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The Habs’ interest in Lecavalier is long standing, there has long been talk – never denied – that Montreal had a deal in place to acquire the big centre four years ago, and the clamour among fans and pundits to sign him is going to reach a fever pitch in the next couple of days.

Former Habs forward Mathieu Darche, who played with Lecavalier in Tampa (as did Bergevin, actually), has already weighed in with a blog item on RDS.ca, Quebec-based hockey writers are speculating excitedly on Twitter, expect it to mark the beginning of a deluge.

But does it make sense?

At the right price, the answer is a resounding yes.

Lecavalier can provide veteran leadership, elite skill, a much-needed physical presence up the middle, and it would take approximately 0.00001 seconds for him to become a huge fan favourite.

However, and there is a big however, all of this requires a series of assumptions, many of them dodgy.

Off the top of my head, here are the main ones.

Assumption the first: that Lecavalier even wants to play in his home town. Most of his immediate family now lives in Florida, and it’s a poorly-guarded secret that he has no particular zest for the level of scrutiny that he would have to endure in Montreal.

Next: that the Habs, who have about $9 million under the cap for 2013-14 to fill three roster spots, are interested in giving any kind of term or dollars to a 33-year-old player, even one of Lecavalier’s evident ability.

Third: that Bergevin is prepared to compete for Lecavalier’s signature. With teams like Toronto, the New York Rangers, and god knows who else (Vancouver?) likely to give Lecavalier’s agent a ring, it will almost certainly come down to him wanting to play in Montreal and accepting either less money or less security than he can find elsewhere.

Fourth: that the Habs are close enough to contending that Lecavalier would pick them over a rival outfit. Will Lecavalier demand to play top-line minutes? If so, it would require a re-think in Habs-land, where Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais are entrenched, for better or for worse, and Lars Eller seems prepared to take the next step (assuming he fully recovers from Eric Gryba’s calamitous hit in the playoffs).

Fifth: the Habs’ most pressing needs are on the wing, and it seems unlikely that Lecavalier would have much interest in switching positions, or that he’d even be a good fit there (ditto for the centres currently on the team, although Desharnais has occasionally been pressed into service, as has Eller). Signing Lecavalier would thus compromise the acquisition of a scoring winger either via trade or free agency. To do so would require moving a salary, and while Plekanec would surely interest teams (more than Gionta, say), he has a no-trade clause.

All that said, Lecavalier is the big-bodied, skilled, tough centre that the Habs have basically been craving since Jean Béliveau retired – it’s not an accident that Lecavalier portrayed Le Gros Bill in a television movie about Rocket Richard.

He also has plenty left in the tank, as his point totals from last year demonstrated, even if he’s more injury-prone and a little slower than he was in the past.

There’s also the not-inconsiderable factor that Lecavalier will doubtless be seeking to stick it up the outfit that cut him loose – and the Habs are short on big men who play with a serious chip on their shoulder.

And there’s no doubt the team, which has made a commitment to promoting French-speaking talent, would rake in scandalous amounts of dough from the sale of Lecavalier jerseys.

But the Habs like who they have in the lineup, but Desharnais had an off-year last season, and Plekanec isn’t the dynamic offensive force that Lecavalier is, so it’s hard to argue he wouldn’t be an upgrade, even a short-term one.

It will run against Bergevin’s better instincts to leap into the UFA pool in a meaningful way, but the pressure on him to make an exception for Lecavalier will be intense.

Expect him to make a pitch.

But don’t be surprised if Lecavalier chooses a landing spot other than the Bell Centre.

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