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Tampa Bay Lightning's Vinny Lecavalier pushes to re-establish himself as an elite player

TAMPA — It is 15 minutes after Thursday's practice at the St. Pete Times Forum, and Vinny Lecavalier, at his locker, is not only covered in sweat, he is dripping it.

Coach Guy Boucher's practices can have that effect. But for Lecavalier, the sweat also is a by-product of what he admitted might be some extra effort as he pushes to re-establish himself as one of the game's elite players.

"This is a huge year for me," the Lightning captain said. "I've had two pretty rough seasons."

Lecavalier had a combined 53 goals and 137 points in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Compare that with the two seasons prior, when he had 92 goals (including a league best 52 in 2006-07) and 200 points while ESPN's Barry Melrose, before he was Lecavalier's coach, called him one of the best players in the world.

Lecavalier's 24 goals last season were 59th in the league and his fewest since 2001-02. His 8.1 shooting percentage was his worst ever.

That was while he made $10 million in the first year of an 11-year, $85 million contract.

Analysts across North America were unforgiving and questioned whether Lecavalier's skills permanently had eroded. The Hockey News this season ranked him the 15th-best center, not in the world but in the league.

"These two years have definitely been tough," Lecavalier said. "But I have a really good feeling about this team. We can do very well. I want to do well."

"Vinny is on a mission," teammate Marty St. Louis said. "People have maybe second-guessed his skill level, his competing level the last couple of years. So Vinny is on a mission to prove to people what he's really made of."

•••

Lecavalier, 30, could not be in a better place for a resurgence.

He had minor knee surgery in August, but he is healthier than he has been in several seasons. The addition of left wing Simon Gagne has given him the quality linemate he has lacked since the middle of 2008-09, when St. Louis was moved to a line with center Steven Stamkos.

And the trade rumors that dogged him, and wore on him, for two seasons under the team's former management were short-circuited by new general manager Steve Yzerman.

In other words, there shouldn't be any excuses, not that Lecavalier would make any.

"The truth is, he's been through some tough times the last couple of years," St. Louis said. "It hasn't been easy to play through what he's played through. All the rumors of him being out of town, that's tough to take, especially when you sign a big contract. I felt bad for him."

•••

Boucher, in his first NHL season and at 39 the league's youngest coach, said he heard all summer about Lecavalier's struggles. He has seen none of it so far.

"Whenever I heard about Vinny, it was always about waking somebody up," Boucher said. "I'm not waking up Vinny. He's wide awake. He's very enthusiastic, and more than that."

Lecavalier, with two goals and three points in two preseason games, said Boucher's puck-forward system and the positive atmosphere the coach is creating has been rejuvenating, as has Yzerman's upgraded roster — so much so that Lecavalier said the team, out of the postseason the past three years, should "aim at more than just making the playoffs. Our goal should be to go all the way. We have the team to do it. We have the system to do it. We have everything to do it."

As for personal goals, he said, "I know I can get back to the numbers I had before. I'm on a great line (that also includes right wing Steve Downie), and the power play is going to be really good. You work hard and the points will come."

Fine, Boucher said, but goals and assists will not be how Lecavalier is judged.

"We're not looking for 50 goals from Vinny," he said. "We're looking for a guy who is charging at the head of the pack. Steve Yzerman had 14 goals one year, and (his Red Wings) did great in the playoffs. You never hear about that because he's leading the pack and showing the other guys to do the small details to win games.

"So that's something that's important for Vinny to understand and get some pressure off his shoulders. He doesn't have to carry the team on his back."

The thing is, Lecavalier is the kind of player who can do it.

"I'm 30 years old," he said. "I'm in my prime."

"He's our leader. We're going to follow as he goes," Stamkos said. "He's been great in preseason. He has shown by example on and off the ice, and for me, that's something you look up to. It's going to be a good year for him. No doubt."

Or should that be no sweat?

Tampa Bay Lightning's Vinny Lecavalier pushes to re-establish himself as an elite player

09/30/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:48pm]
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