TORONTO – John Tortorella would not have said this when he took over as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2001. Nor would he have said it when his team won the Stanley Cup in 2004.
But the kind of hockey that star centre Vincent Lecavalier has played over the last 12 months or so cannot be ignored.
“He is the best player in the league,” Tortorella said before Monday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I don’t care what anybody else talks about. And I say that, and I’m not trying to be disrespectful to anybody else, I just see that as a coach, I can put him in any situation and feel comfortable – offensively and defensively. And how’s he handled himself in the room and matured there – I just think puts him above and beyond.”
Former NHL coach Pat Burns, who lives in the Tampa area, has been saying it for more than a year. Now the Lightning want the rest of the league to know it.
“He is the best player in the league, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” GM Jay Feaster told The Canadian Press from Tampa. “I thought he was the best player in the league last year. I think he’s the most complete two-way player in the game today.”
Lecavalier leads the NHL in scoring, carrying 45 points (19-26) into Monday night’s game, on pace for a career-high 127 points. Like any hockey player, Lecavalier shies away from that kind of talk.
“It’s a long season,” Lecavalier told The Canadian Press before the game. “I know that consistency is going to be the thing I want to keep going. But it’s definitely nice to hear these things.”
His teammates have no trouble extolling his virtues.
“I know him as much as anybody,” said fellow star forward Brad Richards. “You could always tell he had the talent to do this. He’s just been really consistent. Last year, too. When he started his run last year right up to now – I think every night pretty much he’s getting three, four, five scoring chances and he’s obviously burying them.
“He’s a big guy, he’s got speed, great hands and he’s putting it all together right now. He’s fun to watch.”
When Sidney Crosby captured his first of what surely will be many Hart Trophies as the NHL MVP last season, calling him the game’s best player seemed a statement without reproach. And at only 20, his best years are still to come. But when it comes to the 2007-08 season, he’s got competition from Lecavalier.
“If he played in a major media market, or God forbid he played in Canada, they’d be building monuments in his honour,” said Feaster. “That’s how good he is. It’s just unfortunate that not everybody seems to know that. And particularly, from a league’s perspective, the league hype machine has really focused on Sidney Crosby and that’s to take nothing away from Sidney Crosby. He’s a great hockey player and there may come a time when he is the best player in the game.
“But I think somewhere along the line the hype machine and the media has forgotten just how good No. 4 is.”
Lecavalier says not getting the same attention as Crosby is fine with him.
“Sid should get the attention he’s getting, just by what he’s done already for this league,” said Lecavalier.
There was lots of hype for Lecavalier when he was taken first overall in the 1998 NHL entry draft – already nine years ago. But it was unwarranted at first because he wasn’t ready for stardom. It took him a few years to develop.
“You guys had him pencilled as the best player early in his career when he really didn’t deserve that tag,” said Tortorella. “Vinny has gone through that process and he’s there and more. That’s what is exciting, there’s more there also.”
Lecavalier is the full package. He creates his own ice thanks to his 6-4, 223-pound frame. He’s not shy to drop the gloves if need be.
“He fought a couple of times this year and our bench was 10 feet tall,” said Tortorella. “Everybody gets a little crazy, ‘Should Vinny be fighting?’ You can get hurt in so many different ways in this game of hockey, to me that is so good for your hockey team to see a guy take care of his own business in those situations.
“That’s where his respect is among his teammates right now.”
The burning question is whether Lecavalier will remain in Tampa. He enters next season in the last year of a deal that pays him $7.16 million annually. He’s slated for unrestricted free agency in July 2009. Just imagine the interest in his services around the league.
Feaster wants to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“I’ve made no secret of the fact I want to keep him in a Tampa Bay Lightning uniform for the rest of his career,” said Feaster. “I’ve said that publicly, I’ve told him that, I’ve said it in front of his agent, at a public gathering, at a poker tournament …”
And Feaster believes the feeling is mutual.
“Vinny just invested $3 million of his own money through his foundation to build a pediatric cancer wing in Tampa,” said Feaster. “Vinny likes playing in Tampa. Vinny likes being part of this organization. Vinny has expressed no interest whatsoever in leaving. I’m confident that we’ll be able to get a deal done with him.”
Said Lecavalier: “I do love to play in Tampa. I like the organization and I like the team. But it is very far away for any decisions.”