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Tampa Bay Lightning's Vincent Lecavalier celebrates after scoring a second-period goal against the Florida Panthers during an NHL hockey game Saturday night, Dec 27, 2008, in Tampa, Fla. (Chris O'Meara)
Tampa Bay Lightning's Vincent Lecavalier celebrates after scoring a second-period goal against the Florida Panthers during an NHL hockey game Saturday night, Dec 27, 2008, in Tampa, Fla. (Chris O'Meara)

Lecavalier improving Add to ...

Tampa's in town tonight, the end of a long preseason odyssey that began earlier this week in Dallas and continued through Western Canada, with virtually every player in tow, making it something of a logistical nightmare for staff.

TV analyst Ray Ferraro put it nicely: This swing was the last lingering effects of the old Tampa regime, which rented out the team as a barnstorming, latter-day Washington Generals - a travelling road show that may have generated a few dollars in revenue, but probably doesn't help the evaluation process.

Selfishly though, it was handy to see this intriguing club up close and personal, beginning with Friday's practice at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, where Vinnie Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Steve Stamkos all weighed in on the changes made at every level in the organization - ownership, management, coaching.

Not surprisingly, it was an across-the-board thumbs-up from the three principal players on the team, two of whom - St. Louis and Stamkos - had exceptional years last year despite the turmoil.

Lecavalier, on the other hand, has struggled by his usual standards, for going on two years now. That's partly because of the lingering effects of injury - wrist surgery after his Rocket Richard trophy season in 2007 set him back - and partly because of a lethargy that sort of enveloped his game, especially in the second half of last season as the Lightning slowly drifted out the playoff picture.

Lecavalier looks far more interested and involved, and it probably starts with the fact that he'll get to play with former Canadian Olympian Simon Gagne this year, which gives him an even-strength linemate that can play at a reasonably high ability level. Steve Downie, who played the latter part of last year mostly on a line with St. Louis and Stamkos, is the third member of the unit currently, while Ryan Malone fills out the St. Louis-Stamkos unit.

Line No. 3 consists of Dominic Moore, Teddy Purcell and Sean Bergenheim, not bad and a far better alternative than what they had a year ago.

If Lecavalier stays healthy, he has a chance to become the NHL's comeback player of the year, which is only ever bestowed in an unofficial way.

Short aside: With all the hardware the NHL dispenses come awards time, why wouldn't they name a comeback player of the year? The Masterton comes closest, but here's a vote for reworking the definition of the Lady Byng trophy so that it goes to the player who rebounds after a sub-par year. The Byng doesn't get much respect as it is currently interested defined - gentlemanly conduct just doesn't cut it among hockey players generally - and it would create an interesting new category, which this year would feature a ton of potential candidates this year: Ales Hemsky, Johan Franzen, David Booth, Marc Savard, Dave Bolland, Milan Lucic, Paul Martin to name just a few.

Then there is Lecavalier, who actually scored 70 points last season, but was a minus-16, a fairly accurate reflection of his even-strength struggles. It is in the goal-scoring department where the decline has been especially noticeable: 52 to 40 to 29 to 24 over the past four seasons.

For Lecavalier, who was part of the 2004 Stanley Cup championship team, there is more to get excited about this year than there has been in the recent past.

"It all starts with structure - and everybody going in the same direction," said Lecavalier, who imagines that he will re-discover his touch around the net in the new Guy Boucher era. "I think it was maybe a matter of confidence the last two years, but I feel good right now. I've had some injuries, but obviously, I've worked through them and I'm working hard to be in great shape. Just the practices we're having right now, it's pretty intense. We want to be the team that's in the best shape in the league - so it's good for that."

Presumably, it'll be even better when they get home at 6 a.m. Sunday morning, after surviving the preseason road trip from hell.

 

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