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How long to wait for Vinny to peak?

Any talk about Vinny Lecavalier has to begin at the end. You have to talk about his future, about his developing speed and instincts and tenacity and how far all that will take him one day.

There are few young players in the NHL with as much potential. It's still not a stretch to expect him one day to be a 40-goal scorer, a guy who leads a team to division titles and beyond, who grows into a league marketing machine and a perennial All-Star.

Really, he's that good.

The only question is, how long are you willing to wait for it to happen? And how many losses are you willing to endure in the meantime?

This is what needs to be settled before we go much further with Lecavalier. How long?

Yes, he's still only 21 and is playing in just his fourth season. And, yes, there's no doubt he's going to be a knockout in this league. One day.

But, in the meantime, where are the chocolate sprinkles that should keep us eagerly awaiting the rest of the sundae?

Hailed by scouts as the best prospect since Mario Lemieux, the kid was 267th in the league in scoring with two goals before Monday night's action. Hey, at that rate, he could score five, maybe six goals before the season's over.

Seriously, do you know how many goals Lemieux scored his fourth season in the league? 70. That's more than Lecavalier has in his career.

Hmm, do you think those scouts meant Claude Lemieux?

It's silly, of course, to try to assess Lecavalier this early. That's like trying to assess Michael Vick's NFL potential right now. In fact, if Lecavalier were in the NFL or the NBA, he'd probably be a rookie instead of a fourth-year player.

It's true that he's not scoring as much as he'd like. Two goals in 14 games ain't cutting it by anybody's standards.

His slow start easily could be pinned on the fact he missed training camp. Anybody would be a little slow out of the gate without enough preseason training. Kings center Jason Allison is kind of going through the same thing (no goals in eight games).

But when do you start to think about the unthinkable? When do you start to wonder aloud if this franchise could get more for Lecavalier than it's getting out of him?

There were trade rumors swirling last week, but it appears there wasn't much to them. Lightning general manager Rick Dudley has said emphatically he isn't shopping Lecavalier.

"The bottom line is, he's gifted. He will be a great player. You don't get those guys very often. You can't trade those guys," ESPN hockey analyst and former coach Barry Melrose said. "To trade this kid at his age is ridiculous, as far as I'm concerned."

What's ridiculous is that this franchise is still floundering 10 seasons into its existence. Okay, so maybe trading Lecavalier right now isn't the answer, but how much longer should the Lightning wait? And, in the meantime, shouldn't Tampa Bay expect a little more from the kid than 63 goals in three seasons, even from someone his age?

If you trade Lecavalier, you lose a potential superstar and your team's only marketing tool, which could come back to haunt you. But in return you could get two or three skilled players just like Quebec (now Colorado) did when it traded Eric Lindros to the Flyers and got several guys, including Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci and Chris Simon, who were solid contributors to the Avs' 1996 Stanley Cup championship.

Who's to say the Lightning couldn't benefit similarly by trading Lecavalier?

Look, if the Lightning keeps him, clearly the kid has to get some help. Some more scoring wings would be good for starters. If the kid doesn't deliver then, Dudley needs to announce the bidding is open.

"You've got to bite the bullet with him. You've got to take time and teach him to be a pro. You've got to surround him with good players, which they are starting to do," Melrose said. "You've got to give Vinny two or three more years."

Fine. But be advised that the countdown has begun.

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