By their standards, the Montreal Canadiens are in the midst of some very lengthy droughts.
If they don’t win the Cup this year, it will mark the 15th consecutive spring Stanley avoided the banks of the St. Lawrence. The last time a Canadiens forward won either the Art Ross or Hart Trophies was 1978, when Guy Lafleur won them both.
That was two years before 28-year-old center Vincent Lecavalier was even born.
Once feared for its Flying Frenchmen, Montreal hasn’t been home to an MVP-caliber forward since people came to The Forum in bellbottoms.
For that reason, and a host of others, Habs GM Bob Gainey has to bet the house if the Tampa Bay Lightning is indeed willing to part with its megastar.
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: If the Bolts are looking to deal Lecavalier for any reason other than ducking out of his 11-year, $85-million extension that kicks in next year, they’re nuts.
Lecavalier is young enough to still be a huge contributor when any potential franchise rebuild comes to fruition, be it one, three or five years down the road.
Yet reports have surfaced indicating some higher-ups in the Tampa organization feel shedding a commitment of nearly $100 million to one player in these tough times may not be such a bad idea.
Lecavalier-to-Montreal rumors are nothing new; they’ve been contrived, questioned and unconditionally denied in the past by some of the same people involved in this turn of gossip.
But something feels different this time.
Lecavalier and Tampa GM Brian Lawton know the lay of the NHL land. Anything but unequivocal denial of trade talk leaves the door open in the minds of creative media members and optimistic fans that something could come down the tubes.
It’s not like the people in Tampa are directly throwing gas on the fire. Lecavalier hasn’t said anything even close to “I want out” and Lawton has stated the team is absolutely not actively shopping its best player.
But Lawton did happen to mention no player is untouchable. And Lecavalier did acknowledge whether or not he is moved is beyond his control and, if it were to happen, Montreal would be on the short list of places he’d like to play.
Is that the kind of thing people who want no part of a deal say?
From the other perspective, there’s a myriad of reasons Montreal should be running up Lawton’s phone bill.
Start with the roster players rumored to be part of the deal – Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec and Josh Gorges.
Show me the deal-breaker there and I’ll show you a Habs fan who drastically over-values the team’s players.
None of those names carry the weight of Mike Komisarek or Carey Price, both of whom were lumped into trade speculation during another round of Lecavalier rumors last spring.
In addition to the three aforementioned NHLers, Montreal would supposedly also be asked for a top prospect and quite possibly more than one first round pick.
The Canadiens have drafted very well in recent years, leaving them deep in quality prospects. That same selection acumen can be counted on to cull NHL-caliber players from the second round and beyond for a couple seasons.
If this were a rental-player situation, you’d balk at sacrificing a big chunk of your team and future. But Lecavalier is under contract for the next decade; he’s not going to skip town four months after you acquire him.
Higgins and Plekanec are both eligible to become restricted free agents in July and the Habs would probably have to pay out roughly $4 million in raises to keep both of them in the fold under what’s sure to be a falling salary cap. That extra money represents about exactly the kind of pay increase it’s going to take to keep Komisarek, an unrestricted free agent, around.
Meanwhile, Lecavalier is exactly what Montreal has missed for far too long – a big, bonafide No. 1 stud up the middle who can consistently impact the outcome of games, big and small. The Habs are adept at developing good players, but there isn’t a truly great one in their midst.
Recently, the Canadiens have struck out every time they’ve made a play for a difference-maker. Daniel Briere didn’t want to sign there. Ditto for Mats Sundin. All that Olli Jokinen trade talk amounted to nothing.
If top-flight free agents don’t want you and you’re not drafting first overall, a trade is the most viable option in terms of getting a franchise player on your team.
Lecavalier, already a Cup champion and smack in the middle of his prime, would immediately make Montrealers forget about all those failed pursuits in the past.
It’s easy to tell Gainey is a man who operates under measured tones and relies on the logic in his head rather than the jerk in his knees to make decisions. That said, he’s never lacked for backbone and now is not the time to break with precedent.
Quite simply, if there’s a remotely reasonable deal to be made for Lecavalier, Gainey must pull the trigger.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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