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Win or lose the first draft pick, Lightning calls it a win-win deal

After four days of intense meetings, the Lightning has decided whom to take if the team ends up with the first pick in this summer's NHL draft.

It just isn't telling anybody.

But whether that pick is Vincent Lecavalier or David Legwand _ the top players available _ Lightning scouts promise he will be the most talented player the team has ever drafted.

"Both were impressive, but there is something we like a little better about one," said Tony Esposito, the Lightning's director of scouting and player development. "It was close. They both will be players, but we definitely like one over the other."

Lightning scouts call Lecavalier, a 6-foot-4 center from Rimouski, the best prospect to come out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League since Mario Lemieux. The Central Scouting Service says Lecavalier "possesses the qualities to be a franchise player."

So it's Lecavalier, right?

Not so fast. Lightning scouts call Legwand, a 6-1 center from Plymouth, the best prospect to come out of the Ontario Hockey League since Wayne Gretzky. Lecavalier and Legwand are considered to be better players than Boston's Joe Thornton, the top pick last season.

"Everyone called Thornton "The Next One' because he was the best player since (Eric) Lindros," Lightning scout Angelo Bumbacco said. "I'll tell you what, the guy we draft should be called "The Next One' because he is the best player since Lindros."

Judged by the numbers, Lecavalier is the better playmaker, but Legwand is the better scorer. Lecavalier is bigger, but Legwand can play center or wing. Because of his size, Lecavalier is compared with Lemieux and former Montreal great Jean Beliveau. Because of his skill, Legwand is compared with Dallas' Mike Modano and Colorado's Joe Sakic.

Asked if there was a weakness, something the scouts didn't like about either player, head scout Don Murdoch said: "No. No. Nothing. Other than taking faceoffs, no, these guys don't have a weakness."

It's good the Lightning scouts like both, because there's a chance Tampa Bay will end up with the second pick. A lottery May 10 will determine the draft order. Tampa Bay has the best odds to get the top pick and cannot slip lower than second.

General manager Phil Esposito said "it's very unlikely" the Lightning would trade the pick unless someone offered him a superstar

"Never say never," Esposito said. "If Colorado called and said, "We'll give you Peter Forsberg,' then you have to think about. But I like our guy so much that I would have to say that it's very unlikely we would trade him."

Murdoch said the pick would be one of the Lightning's top three centers next season, but Esposito said he would withhold judgment until training camp.

The Lightning doesn't have a pick in the second round, but has three picks in the third round. Murdoch said the plan through the first three rounds is to take the best available player but probably would lean toward taking forwards after the third round.

NOTES: Tony Esposito said the Lightning received a counteroffer from the agent representing 1996 No. 1 pick Mario Larocque and that he expected a deal to struck in the next week. If the Lightning doesn't sign Larocque by June 1, he would go back into the draft, but Esposito said he did not believe that would happen. Phil Esposito said the Lightning is close to an agreement to make Cleveland of the International Hockey League its minor-league affiliate next season. Esposito is waiting for approval from team president Steve Oto, who is in Japan on business. Debbie Demers, wife of Lightning coach Jacques, is scheduled for breast cancer surgery Wednesday at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.

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