The resurrection of Vincent Lecavalier's career took another small step forward this past weekend, when he scored goals in consecutive games on behalf of his new team, the Los Angeles Kings. People may forget that Lecavalier led the NHL in goal-scoring back in 2007, but Darryl Sutter didn't. Sutter never forgets anything, and he especially remembers how Lecavalier and Brad Richards ultimately were the difference-makers when Tampa Bay defeated his Calgary Flames in the 2004 Stanley Cup final.
Lots of water has passed under the bridge since then. Sutter went on to win two championships with the Kings. After being bought out by the Lightning, Lecavalier – now 35 – spent most of this past season watching from the press box as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers. Then L.A. swept in and scooped him up, along with defenceman Luke Schenn, in a deal that cost the Kings a draft choice and a prospect.
It's one of the great conundrums of professional sport – how a player such as Lecavalier couldn't play for a rebuilding team, but can step in and find an important role on a Stanley Cup contender.
But the Kings had lost depth, size and experience at centre following the departures of Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll, and thus were looking for someone with Lecavalier's winning pedigree.
"What I remember most about Vinnie is the respect he has among his peers," said Sutter. "I think he can really help our hockey club."
For his part, Lecavalier says he actually prefers to play for a coach with Sutter's reputation, noting the Lightning won in 2004 with none other than John Tortorella behind the bench.
"From what you hear, you know he [Sutter] is a tough coach and very demanding – and I like that," said Lecavalier. "I played for Torts for seven, eight years, and he won. I played my best hockey then. To have a demanding coach on a team where everybody follows the system, I think it's pretty amazing what these guys are doing. Now I know why they're so successful."
In the trade, the Flyers agreed to pay one half of Lecavalier's salary for the current season, and Lecavalier agreed that he would retire once the season ends – otherwise, the Kings couldn't have managed the deal for salary-cap reasons. But Lecavalier's focus isn't on the finish line. It's on the here-and-now, on seeing if he can help the Kings get to the winner's circle again. Last season, Brad Richards – with whom he played off and on since they were teenagers – was able to manage a similar feat, as a support player on the 2015 Chicago Blackhawks' championship squad.
"First time you come in here, it's like the first day of school," said Lecavalier, "but the locker room has been easy because the guys made me feel welcome. Living here, you practice here, work hard and then can get away on your day off. It's rejuvenating."
Moreover, Lecavalier believes he can do more with the puck as time passes and he gets back into the rhythm and pace of the NHL game.
"That just comes with playing," said Lecavalier. "I haven't really played this year. I played seven games, about seven or eight minutes a night, not much ice time. I think I can bring more than what I did in Philly, just by playing more. It's a matter of confidence as well. I feel good. I feel confident. This is a great team, with a lot of good leadership. I feel great coming in here."
In L.A., Sutter is using Lecavalier as a third- or fourth-line centre, playing behind Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, and it means the Kings don't have to rely so much on Andy Andreoff and Nick Shore, two younger and less experienced centres who'd been having trouble winning faceoffs. Lecavalier's ice time is inching up incrementally with every game he's played; on the weekend, Sutter had him playing with the second power-play unit, on which he scored the two goals.
But where they really need Lecavalier's help is in the faceoff circle.
"That's something he said," said Lecavalier. "He wants all the players to be solid in the faceoff circle. You'd rather start with the puck than without it. That's something I've got to keep working on."
Faceoff results, according to Sutter, "are a part of our game that's really dropped off this year, if you look at the numbers. To remain a top possession team – with our faceoff percentage being as low as it is – is almost remarkable."
Meanwhile, Lecavalier is settling in nicely with his new surroundings. His family arrived in Los Angeles last week. They've rented a house already, and are collectively looking forward to what is likely to be the final chapter of a distinguished career.
"Great players who have had great careers, 100 per cent of the time are really good people, too," said Sutter. "I don't like talking about it, to be quite honest, because to me, he's [still] a great player. That's what I see. On the right team, I see that."