The most shocking compliance buyout announcement of the NHL off-season went down early Thursday morning when the Tampa Bay Lightning amnestied the contract of longtime star center Vincent Lecavalier. The buyout is the costliest in league history, paying the 33-year-old more than $32.6 million to erase the final seven years of Lecavalier’s 11-year, $85-million pact.
Bolts owner Jeff Vinik and GM Steve Yzerman realized Lecavalier’s $7.7 million salary cap hit was far too onerous for the team’s future and the franchise deserves credit for swallowing the bitter pill and enduring short-term pain for long-term gain. But the big question now is, where does Lecavalier end up? Injuries have whittled down his effectiveness and he no longer is considered one of the NHL’s premier centermen, but he still was nearly a point-per-game player (10 goals and 32 points in 39 games this past season) and has the size, skill and experience a Stanley Cup contender would benefit from.
As one prominent NHL player agent noted, don’t be surprised if Lecavalier signs a one-year contract with a new team, then returns to the Lightning next summer. Indeed, if Tampa Bay can build itself into more of a top Cup contender for the 2014-15 campaign, Lecavalier’s return would be the type of boost that would help both the organization and the player.
That said, here is a look (in no particular order) at some of the teams that would be the best fit for Lecavalier this season:
Within seconds of the announcement of Lecavalier’s buyout, Canadiens fans and media were fitting Lecavalier for a Habs jersey. But it’s still to soon to presume the Quebec native is destined for Montreal. He does fulfill their desire to get bigger down the middle, but Lecavalier may not want to subject himself to the fishbowl existence that comes with playing in one of hockey’s most scorching hotbeds.
Everybody knows the Maple Leafs have been searching desperately for a true No. 1 center and although Lecavalier’s best days may be behind him, he’s still better than anyone Toronto currently has at that spot. The Leafs have some $19.6 million in available cap space and Lecavalier would go a long ways toward helping them build on their recent playoff appearance. But again, does he want to play in a high-pressure, higher-visibility market?
Red Wings GM Ken Holland has had recent experience in signing a veteran star (Marian Hossa) to a short-term pact and if unrestricted free agent pivot Valtteri Filppula leaves via free agency, Lecavalier makes a lot of sense on a one- or two-year contract. Detroit’s move to the Eastern Conference makes them a more attractive option in terms of travel, but the biggest draw for Lecavalier could well be the Wings’ sterling reputation among NHL players as one of the league’s top organizations.
The Stars cleaned out their management after missing the playoffs, but former Stars center and Lecavalier’s former Tampa Bay teammate Brad Richards loved his time in Texas. If the Rangers buy out Richards, could we see he and Lecavalier head to Dallas as a package deal? Stranger things have happened.
5. NY Rangers
Should the Blueshirts hang on to Richards, Lecavalier might want to join his old buddy in Manhattan. Goodness knows the Rangers need to improve their offense and new coach Alain Vigneault is exactly the type of coach Lecavalier could thrive under. Rangers GM Glen Sather likely would have to move some money around to fit Lecavalier under the cap, but if there’s one thing we know about Sather, it’s that he finds big-name free agent players nearly irresistible.
The Wild are probably the biggest long shot to land Lecavalier – they’ve only got $3.3 million in cap space – but don’t underestimate the will of owner Craig Leipold to surround his prized UFA signings from last summer with talented veterans.
At first blush, the notion of Lecavalier as a Penguin might seem odd. However, if the Pens choose not to bring back mid-season acquisitions Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow, bumping Brandon Sutter to the fourth line and using Lecavalier as their third-line center isn’t a bad idea at all.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.