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After watching teammates shine, Lightning star Lecavalier having career year

After watching teammate Martin St. Louis win the Hart Trophy in 2003-04 and Brad Richards lead the Tampa Bay Lightning in scoring with a career-high 91 points last season, Lecavalier is having a career year of his own.

The native of Ile-Bizard, Que., is two goals and nine points shy from career highs with another 27 games to play in the regular season. He led with NHL with 34 goals before play Thursday night.

"I think it's the first time really that I feel that confident," Lecavalier said Thursday.

Already in his eighth NHL season, it's easy to forget he's only 26 years old.

"He's got his whole future ahead of him," said Tampa head coach John Tortorella.

It seemed like just yesterday that former Lightning owner Art Williams introduced a baby-faced Lecavalier as the next Michael Jordan of hockey.

"I think he was just excited that day and said that," Lecavalier says looking back. "I even laughed it off, I didn't take him seriously when he said that. ...

"It does go by quick though, eh? I started at 18. My first year was pretty tough. There were lots of ups and downs the first couple of years, being in last place was pretty tough. But it's been a great ride."

Tortorella and Lecavalier have had their ups and downs over the years but are both equally pleased with where things stand right now. Their relationship has grown.

"We speak as men now," Tortorella said before boarding a team flight to New York. "Vinny and I have gone through the process. I never looked at it as fighting. I looked at it as trying to find the common ground where I was trying to define accountability and he was trying to define accountability. We had a disagreement there. We worked through that.

"I think he has turned into a man now and understands the road he needs to go down."

No argument from Lecavalier.

"The older you get the more you learn about the game," he said. "I don't think anybody is the same player at 18 as they are at 25, 26, 27."

He had a career-high 78 points (33-45) in 2002-03 before dipping down to 66 points (32-34) the next season. He was strong last year with 75 points (35-40) and yet many believed there was more there.

Already with 70 points (34-36) in 55 games, he stands among the top five in NHL scoring leaders and is on pace for 89 points. He's gone to the next level.

"The biggest improvement in his maturity on the ice is being a difference-maker more often," said Tortorella. "I just think he's focused on being the best he can be on every given night and making a difference in the game every given night whereas I think the past couple of years, out of seven games maybe three of them he was there as a difference maker.

"Now he has really stepped up and added more responsibility to himself to be the guy on most nights. That's a huge sign in development for me."

Lecavalier points to extra ice time as a key factor.

"There's a difference from playing 18 minutes to 22-24 minutes," he said. "You have a lot more opportunities to score and produce. ...

"My goal was to be more consistent during the season and so far it's been going really well."

He's earned the extra ice time because Tortorella believes in him more than ever before.

"Right now he is one of the best players in this league, and I can say that," said the fiery coach. "A number of years ago I couldn't say that. People thought he was, potential-wise, but now he's turned out to be one of the best players in this game. So it's kind of neat to be around that."

The race for the Rocket Richard Trophy is wide open with Lecavalier leading before his competitors hit the ice Thursday night. The Bolts play the Rangers on Friday night. It's new territory for Lecavalier.

"It's my first time that I'm actually in there really," he said. "My best year was 35 goals. But honestly I don't want to think about that. There's still 27 games and I wand to work on my consistency. "Winning the Stanley Cup at 24 years old was the highlight of my career and I want to win more now. I think we have the team to maybe to do that."


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