When Vincent Lecavalier was drafted first overall to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 1998 NHL Draft, Lightning owner Art Williams called Lecavalier the “Michael Jordan of hockey.”
He may not have lived up to quite the outrageous expectations that Williams had hailed him with, but Lecavalier undoubtedly has become one of the most influential athletes in Tampa Bay sports history.
He helped bring the Lightning their first Stanley Cup in 2004. He leads the Bolts in all-time games played, goals, power-play goals and game-winning goals. He has earned several awards for his efforts to build a pediatric cancer and blood disorder center at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, part of his ongoing mission with the Vinny Lecavalier Foundation.
And now, fifteen years to the day on which he was drafted, Vinny is no longer a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
On Tuesday, the Lightning exercised one of their two compliance buyouts allowed under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The CBA, which ended the 2012-2013 lockout, brought the league-wide salary cap down, forcing many teams across the league to make difficult personnel decisions during the upcoming (or ongoing, depending how you look at it) offseason.
In addition to the no-restructuring clause from the 2005 CBA, Lecavalier’s mammoth contract (through 2020) just became too much to bear under the new salary cap. The Lightning will save nearly $7.7 million in salary cap space each season, more than $50 million over the course of the seven years that remained on Lecavalier’s contract.
The move gives general manager Steve Yzerman and owner Jeffrey Vinik flexibility they desperately needed to make the team competitive on a yearly basis. Nonetheless, the move is one that Yzerman probably didn’t want to make, but had to make.
There were reports on Wednesday that the Lightning had attempted to make a trade with Toronto where the Maple Leafs would have taken on an asset (i.e. draft pick or prospect) and bought out Lecavalier’s contract so he could re-sign with Tampa Bay.
The NHL reportedly blocked the move. Yzerman denied the reports.
“The decision to part ways with Vinny was not made easily,” Yzerman said. “After much internal consideration we believe this will prove to be a pivotal move for us as we strive to achieve our long-term goal of competing at the highest level, year-in and year-out.
“The cap hit created by Vinny’s contract is proving to be prohibitive as we model our roster possibilities for 2013-2014 and beyond. The economics and structure of the new collective bargaining agreement are necessitating this decision.”
And for those wondering, the Lightning cannot simply re-sign Lecavalier under a new deal. He is required under the new CBA to be away from the team that bought him out (the Lightning) for at least a full year. During the 2013-2014 season, not even a trade can get Vinny back in a Lightning jersey.
He will play for a different team next year, and he might even return as an opponent, but it is an unbelievable shock to the system to think that Vinny may never suit up for the Bolts again. The once-youngest captain in Lightning history and now longest-tenured captain in Lightning history has been kicked to the curb, where he will sit and wait to be picked up by one of the other 29 teams.
“Vinny will always be considered a part of the Tampa Bay Lightning family and his legacy will be celebrated at every opportunity,” Yzerman said. “We acknowledge and thank him for his incredible accomplishments on and off the ice for the Lightning, our fans and the Tampa Bay community.
“He has been a significant reason for many of the team’s successes and his contributions to the community have been immeasurable.”
The move makes sense, and it had to be made, but this one is tough to swallow. The
tyranny reign of Gary Bettman has suffered yet another casualty, and it won’t be the last.
I think I can speak for the Tampa Bay community in saying thanks to Vinny Lecavalier for everything he’s done. His passion for the game and presence in the community will be sorely missed.
At least we’ll always have 2004.