MONTREAL – On both his trips to Montreal this season, there were rumours that Vincent Lecavalier was about to be traded to the Canadiens.
During Tampa Bay’s last visit Jan. 27, the Montreal native got a rousing ovation from Bell Centre fans who were anticipating an imminent trade for the Lightning’s high-scoring centre. But by early February, that rumour had been squelched.
Now there is new talk that Lecavalier will be dealt to Montreal before July 1, when his US$85 million, 11-year contract kicks in. The new deal has a no-trade clause, but he can be moved before then.
“I’ve had rumours for many years,” Lecavalier said Thursday as the Lightning prepared to face the Canadiens. “It might keep going, but we’ll see what happens.
“I don’t really have control. And they told me they’d come and talk to me if something did happen.”
They are Tampa Bay owners Len Barrie and Oren Koules and general manager Brian Lawton, who spoke to some teams, including Montreal, about a possible Lecavalier trade in January.
At the time, there was talk of financial difficulties, but they reportedly were settled when the owners were able to restructure a major loan.
After that, all swore that the notion of dealing their captain and offensive engine was out of the question.
But thing have changed since then.
The Lightning finished last in the 30-team NHL last season and on Tuesday, they were officially eliminated from this year’s playoffs.
Steven Stamkos, drafted first overall last June, has recovered from a slow start to his rookie season by posting more than point per game in the past month and looks ready to become a top-line centre next season.
A Lecavalier deal could not only lighten the payroll, but provide a supporting cast for the emerging star. Plus, they should get another good young player in this year’s draft. Hence, the new rumours.
And Montreal is no doubt still interested in landing the big, skilled centre they have lacked for years, who in this case is also the French-Canadian star many fans have clamoured for.
“Who knows what the future holds?” said Lecavalier, drafted first overall by the Bolts in 1998. “But I always said I want to stay in Tampa.
“We won a Stanley Cup (in 2004). You never know what’s going to happen in the business of hockey, but now I’m in Tampa and I want to finish the season strong and be ready for next season.”
It has been a difficult season for the 28-year-old, who will finish well off the 52 goals and 108 points he amassed in 2006-07 or his 92 points from last season, but he had predicted last summer that a shoulder problem would likely affect his production.
The team has been battered by injuries all season. They have already used 48 different players, only seven short of the NHL record set by the Boston Bruins in 1991-92 and five short of the franchise mark from 1999-2000.
They also endured a coaching change, as Barry Melrose was sacked after only 16 games and replaced on Nov. 15 by Rich Tocchet.
“We had a lot of new players, a new coach, a new system – it was a tough season,” Lecavalier said. “And we had injuries.
“You lose guys like (Andrej) Mezsaros and (Paul) Ranger in the back, it hurts. But I’m not making excuses. We’re at a stage where we want to finish strong. This is a way to gain some confidence and help the young guys get better and get some experience for next year.”
A factor brought up when Melrose was fired was his unwillingness to use Stamkos, who he later said wasn’t ready for the NHL.
But lately, Stamkos has been finding the mark on a line with Martin St. Louis and Ryan Malone. With 40 points after 70 games, he had blown past Lecavalier’s rookie statistics of 13 goals and 15 assists in 1998-99.
“I think it’s confidence,” said Stamkos. “That was kind of lacking at the beginning.
“When you’re not playing and producing, doubts start to creep into your head and it’s tough, especially as a young guy and you’re not used to any of that stuff. I’m playing with some pretty skilled linemates now.
“I’m able to make plays, skate with the puck and I’m more patient. It comes down to confidence and right now I have it. You go into games expecting to make an impact and lately, it’s been happening.”