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Tampa Bay Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier. (Chris O'Meara)
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier. (Chris O'Meara)

Eric Duhatschek

Lecavalier rumours revived Add to ...

Until they started moving it around like some trade show on wheels, Montreal was the traditional and permanent home of the NHL entry draft. Montreal knows how to do a draft right. It has the tradition, the hotel space, the fanatical hockey following and the sense of drama.

So what better way to usher in the new Molson era in Montreal than by having the Canadiens steal the show at the hometown draft, by making the much-longed-for Vincent Lecavalier trade?

The delicious prospect of Lecavalier returning to La Belle Province was the dominant topic of conversation around town yesterday, as NHL teams checked in to prepare for tomorrow night's first round of the 2009 entry draft.

In fact, the demands for reaction were so great that Lecavalier's current team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, trotted out general manager Brian Lawton in front of a wall of reporters and television cameras late yesterday afternoon - and they weren't there to ask about the rift between owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie.

Or who the Lightning might take with the second pick in the draft.

No, this was all about the possibilities that a Lecavalier-to-the-Canadiens deal could be resurrected, something Lawton went to great lengths to play down.

Realistically, what else could he say? Lawton got tweaked pretty badly by Canadiens' GM Bob Gainey at season's end, Gainey accusing Lawton - or someone from his organization - of leaking the names of the players that were part of the preliminary discussions between the two teams back before the NHL all-star game.

Relations between the two GMs were restored earlier this month, according to Lawton, but that doesn't mean they are about to do business together - for Lecavalier, or anyone else for that matter.

"I've talked a lot about Vincent, a lot of people have talked a lot about Vincent and I think at this time, it's all been said," Lawton began. "He's still a player on our roster; and we're excited about it.

"I'm not going to say anymore about his situation. There are enough comments out there, from everybody else. It is status quo for us."

Of course, the status quo can change in a hurry and one way that it might is if Lecavalier declared - a la Dany Heatley - that he was finally tiring of all the off-ice intrigue that has surrounded the franchise, these past 12 months or so. That wouldn't be Lecavalier's style - to air any unhappiness he might have in a public forum - another reason why he would be so well-loved here.

Moreover, the new owners in Montreal - the Molson family - understand only too well the value of having a strong Francophone star as the showpiece of the team. Lecavalier possesses a Jean Béliveau-type gravitas in the way he carries himself.

Nowadays, the only reason why a team would invest $85-million (U.S.) over 11 years in a player (which is what Lecavalier will be owed starting next year) is if he brought more than just goals, assists and points to the table.

Lecavalier, in this market, would do that - and help one of the NHL's most storied franchises turn the corner, after an ugly centennial season, in which they were swatted out of the playoffs in the opening round by the Boston Bruins and face a major roster upheaval. At 29, Lecavalier is still in his prime - and though he is coming off an injury-filled season, he is only two years removed from winning the Rocket Richard trophy as the NHL's goal-scoring leader (2007).

In the context of how the Canadiens' year finished, with a revamped ownership anxious to make its mark, and salary-cap room to spare, there is no good reason why they shouldn't make landing Lecavalier an absolute priority. And for maximum PR benefit, it should happen right on the draft floor, which would give the Canadiens all kinds of leverage to make further moves this summer - by demonstrating to all they are serious about the product they're putting on the ice.

About the only thing that will reasonably dampen the speculation is Tampa's perceived need to be competitive next year. Lawton confirmed that season-ticket sales were lagging far behind where they want them to be.

"I always say, uncertainty is the enemy of growth," Lawton said. "As we stabilize things, I think our fan base will react accordingly, but ultimately people are going to wait for the final product on the ice - and we understand that and we intend to deliver a good product."

If they traded Lecavalier right now, the Lightning would effectively be taking one step backward next season, in an effort to move two steps forward down the road. Internally, it is something they don't think they can do, even after their performances of the past two years - a 30th-place finish followed by 29th-place finish - suggest that they are still in the early stages of a rebuilding program.

With another high draft choice to supplement Steven Stamkos, Tampa will get better eventually, but not in the time that they can get maximum contributions out of Lecavalier.

Philosophically, it would be best for them to turn the page now, and move forward with whatever player help they can get from Montreal along with whatever talent they can pluck in the entry draft.

Lecavalier in a Canadiens' uniform by tomorrow night? For a lot of reasons, it should happen, even if it probably won't.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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