Tampa Bay Lightning's credibility at stake as Vinny Lecavalier trade talk rises

Lightning center and captain Vinny Lecavalier has led the team in points the past two seasons and led the league with 52 goals in 2006-07.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Lightning center and captain Vinny Lecavalier has led the team in points the past two seasons and led the league with 52 goals in 2006-07.

How much for Vinny?

And come to think of it, how much for a franchise's credibility?

This is what the front office cowboys of the Lightning need to realize: It is impossible to lose one without sacrificing the other. Think of it as a two-for-one deal. If the team trades away Vinny Lecavalier, it is also trading away one of the last reasons to believe in it.

It is as simple as this. Fans trust Vinny Lecavalier a great deal, and they don't trust the new ownership at all.

Around here, Lecavalier is not only the face of a franchise, he is the faith. In the chaos of a season, he is the reason to keep watching.

He is the reason to think things might eventually get good again.

Yet, rumors have graduated to reports, and hearsay has advanced into headlines, and the talk from Tampa to Toronto is that Lecavalier can be had. The Lightning's response has involved a little wordplay and a little tap-dancing, but so far, the team hasn't flatly denied anything. And doesn't that say something?

When it comes to Vinny, frankly, no one cares whether a phone call is incoming or outgoing. It's more important to know what was said. It's more important to know if the conversation ended with laughter and the sound of a phone hanging up.

Ask yourself: After everything that has transpired over the past few months, do you believe the Lightning is at least discussing trading Lecavalier? Me, too. After all, it engineered the trades of Dan Boyle before this and Brad Richards before that. Is it possible the new ownership wanted to buy an NHL franchise, just not this one?

Okay, okay. It is true that great players sometimes get traded, even great players who signed a lifetime contract only a few months beforehand. Any minute now, someone is going to remind you that Wayne Gretzky was traded, although they will probably leave out the part that Edmonton has mourned ever since.

And in the interest of full disclosure, I once tried to trade Lecavalier myself. A few years ago, I suggested swapping him for goaltender Roberto Luongo. But that was before Lecavalier grew and the franchise shrank. That was before Lecavalier looked like a player to rebuild around.

Let's agree on this: Before you consider trading Lecavalier, you have to get a haul in return. You have to break the bank. You have to get better for today and for tomorrow. You have to win the trade so convincingly that even the critics swallow hard and say, "Wow.''

In other words, you have to get a sight more than Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, a prospect and draft picks. According to Canadian newspapers, that's the offer.

For the Lightning, the response should be simple: " … And what else?'' And after the offer was improved, I would ask it again. And again. I would tell a team not to call unless its best player — and maybe its best two players — were involved in the deal.

In other words, the Lightning should only consider a trade if it's a home run. And from what we have seen from the offseason, why are we to believe the Lightning front office is capable of hitting one? "Okay, we missed on Barry Melrose, and we missed on Matt Carle, and we missed on Radim Vrbata. But this time, we'll get it right.''

The dark fear in all of this, of course, is that it's about money. For months, Oren Koules has denied the various reports that his wallet is on fire, but no one seems to believe him. On the other hand, why else would a player be worth a lifetime contract in June and a potential trade in January? And if money really is playing a part, what does that say about the future? Or the spending spree of the summer, for that matter?

Perhaps, too, there is a little more impatience involved. This season has had enough of that, hasn't it? You would hate to think this is about Lecavalier not having enough time to recover from his injured shoulder.

Hey, other teams are aware of the talk about finances, too. Other teams are aware the Lightning has made rash moves. So how fair do you think their offers are going to be?

Whatever the reason, the Lightning needs to move carefully here. This is a risky proposition. Trade Lecavalier, and in the short term, you can cut back to one ticket salesman and one guy at the door, because it's going wreck attendance. A fire alarm couldn't empty the Times Forum any faster.

Trade Vinny, and the Lightning had better get it right.

Trade Vinny, and it had better win.

Gary Shelton can be reached at shelton@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8805.

Tampa Bay Lightning's credibility at stake as Vinny Lecavalier trade talk rises 01/13/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 15, 2009 6:47am]

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