It starts with Vinny. For a new Lightning owner, it always does.
He has seen them all, Vinny Lecavalier. He could tell you about the cheap ones and the mouthy ones, about the ones who patted his back and the ones who pounded their chests, about the ones who said nothing and the ones who said things you couldn't trust.
Soon, Lecavalier will provide us with the first clues about Jeff Vinik, owner-in-waiting.
Eventually, perhaps other things will matter more when Lightning fans judge Vinik. Perhaps he will finally bring stability to the franchise. Perhaps he will finally make the rest of the league think of the Lightning as a smart, calculating franchise. Perhaps he will be hungry enough, passionate enough, wealthy enough to make the Lightning essential once again. Perhaps he'll even hang around for a few seasons.
For now, however, there is Vinny.
Do you think Vinik can get to him?
Soon, the Lightning will be his. Perhaps by the team's next game (on March 2), the deal will be complete. (The transaction might have been completed by now, but word is NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has misplaced his rubber stamp again, and owners say they won't buy him a new one until at least March.)
Still, this feels as if it is all but done. Before long, Vinik will close the deal on the schizophrenia of a team and the apathy of the fans, on the underachieving players and the overpaid ones, on a defense that can allow four goals in the time it takes you to sneeze and on an offense that seems to think the net is currently starring in the final season of Lost.
Your probable reaction?
"Golly gee, Jeff. It's about time."
That's the thing about ownership changes with the Lightning. They always sound like such a swell idea, don't they? The new guy always sounds better than the old one, and the promise of good times to come beats the ugliness of a losing streak. (Of course, this is also known as "The Madonna Theory.")
Say this for Vinik. The standards are fairly low. Has any group of fans anywhere seen a longer line of dysfunctional owners than Lightning fans? There was Takashi Okubo, perhaps the only owner in pro sports to be accused of being fictional. There was Audio Art Williams, who decided he didn't like hockey after about three minutes but who would talk to his team for an hour at a time. Of course, there are the current owners, Cowboy Oren and Cowboy Len, who were so passionate they spent all of Oren's money. (They would have spent Len's, too, but he didn't have any. I mean, the guy could use his wallet as a bookmark.)
You know who was the best owner the Lightning has ever had? It was the late Bill Davidson, who had the deed when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup. Davidson wasn't the most passionate hockey man, but when you win a Cup, no one cares if you know how many periods are in a game.
Here's what those owners had in common. They all looked to Lecavalier for hope. Every one of them. He was drafted by Kokusai Green, and Williams proclaimed him to be the next Michael Jordan, and Davidson was the owner who wouldn't trade him, and Koules and Barrie gave him a staggering contract.
Now, there is Vinik.
Once again, an owner has to sort out the Vinny Conundrum.
For Lecavalier, this season has been an unanswered riddle. Put bluntly, his production doesn't measure up to his paycheck. No one pays a player, any player, $10 million a season to be the fourth-highest goal scorer on his team.
So the question must be asked: Can Vinny be saved, or should Vinny be moved?
First things first. I don't think anything will happen short term. Trying to trade a player as popular as Lecavalier would be a lousy way for any new owner to say hello. To a lot of fans, that would sound more like goodbye.
But would Vinik be out of line for evaluating Vinny as the season progresses? Of course not. And when one out of every five dollars a team spends on payroll goes to one player, it has to keep a close watch on him. Frankly, Lecavalier is being paid to be a star, and he hasn't been. (It should be repeated that Lecavalier has a no-trade clause.)
Why has Lecavalier backslid? Who knows? One theory is that Lecavalier isn't playing well because he doesn't trust the current ownership. If so, that would be disappointing, because most competitors don't get their fire from the guy in the owner's box. But if I'm Vinik, I have a heart-to-heart with Lecavalier on the first day I own the team. I tell him I think he is capable of more.
Over time, Vinik has a lot of questions to answer. He has to decide what to do with his general manager, with his head coach, with his marketing plan, with his budget, with his blueprint.
First, there is Vinny.
For a new owner, that's where hope begins.