TAMPA, Fla. — Vincent Lecavalier’s legacy with the Tampa Bay Lightning is secure, both on and off the ice. There is little debate about the impact he made when he was among peers here, when he became a respected presence within a region that adopted him.
There are transition moments for every franchise, when it must part ways with a proud face of its past. Thursday’s announcement was such a time for the Lightning. The news from vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman that Tampa Bay would use a compliance buyout on Lecavalier, ending his tenure with the Lightning, was not a complete surprise, but it was jarring all the same.
“Vinny has been a significant reason for many of our past successes, including the 2004 Stanley Cup, and his contributions to the community are immeasurable,” Lightning vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman said in a statement. “The Lightning organization is indebted to Vinny; we thank him for all he has done here and we wish him well as he moves forward.”
This was a financial decision, plain and simple, one that had been rumored in recent weeks as a possibility. Like all organizations, the Lightning operate within a bottom-line world with bottom-line concerns and bottom-line choices to make.
So, the bottom line is this: Tampa Bay clears itself of a $7.727 million cap hit each season by separating from the seven years, $45 million left on the center’s 11-year, $85 million deal. This was a decision with building as a goal, with long-term visions in mind. Lecavalier will become an unrestricted free agent July 5, eligible to sign with any NHL team except the Lightning.
He and Tampa Bay will move on.
“For the last several months, I knew a compliance buyout was a possibility for me,” Lecavalier said. “In this new CBA and with the salary cap going down in this upcoming season, several teams including the Tampa Bay Lightning, are put in a situation where they have to make tough decisions with some of their players. Although I knew the reality of the situation, it still hit me and my family hard this morning.
“Obviously, when I signed my long-term deal with the Lightning, it was because I wanted to spend my entire career playing for this club. Tampa is where I started at 18 years of age, the city where I spent the longest amount of time in my life, where I wanted to end my career.”
Because of business realities, he will not live that wish, but he leaves memories that cannot be captured behind a dollar sign. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in games played (1,037), goals (383), power-play goals (112) and game-winning goals (60). The Lightning took him first overall in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, exactly 15 years ago Thursday. He played the next 14 seasons with Tampa Bay, growing into a figure that will leave a large shadow in two significant ways.
As a player: He posted 12 consecutive seasons with at least 20 goals, he appeared in four All-Star games, he served as an alternate captain when Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup in 2004, he won the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal-scorer with 52 in 2006-07.
As a man: He established the Vinny Lecavalier Foundation in 2003 to assist kids battling pediatric cancer, he was presented the King Clancy Memorial Trophy and the NHL Foundation Player Award in 2008 for his community contributions, he helped make possible the 2010 opening of the Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorder Center at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla.
He was valued. He was versatile. He was Vinny, Tampa Bay’s own, both as an athlete and a humanitarian.
“It’s something that you have to move on,” Lecavalier said. “I’ve had a lot of great times over there. But I definitely have to turn the page somewhat and go try to play for a different team.”
Legacies are studied in times like these, and Lecavalier leaves a large one. His departure is comparable to the Indianapolis Colts releasing Peyton Manning in 2012. Like Manning, Lecavalier was a top draft pick who grew within one franchise and became a beloved presence in his region and beyond. But like the Colts last year, the Lightning have shown a need to move forward.
Yzerman’s decision is understandable. When explaining the move, he said in a statement, after praising Lecavalier’s contributions, “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, year-out. The economics and structure of the CBA are necessitating this decision and we at the Lightning are excited at the newly created opportunities this presents to us.”
Tampa Bay still has two strong cornerstones in center Steven Stamkos and winger Martin St. Louis. Jon Cooper is a promising coach who will be given time to try to make the Lightning a playoff team for the first time since the 2010-11 campaign, the lone year they have made the postseason since 2007. If Tampa Bay builds more depth (perhaps by adding a forward) and becomes more consistent defensively (especially at goalie) then other pieces are in place to become a factor in the Eastern Conference again.
Sometimes, it takes a step away from the past to create a full plan for the future. So far, the Colts’ choice to introduce the Andrew Luck era has proved to be wise. The additional cap space with Lecavalier’s departure will give Tampa Bay a similar chance to secure pieces for tomorrow, to form a post-Vinny identity.
That knowledge, however, does not make the past any less valuable. Lecavalier gave Tampa Bay his sweat, his heart, in a place he wanted to remain. In January, as he approached his 1,000th career game, he described his journey this way: “It has been a fun ride. I want to play many more years. … It’s going to be a special game, but that’s it. I’ve obviously got to move on.”
Moving on is a reality in professional sports, even for respected figures like Lecavalier. He came. He contributed. He left his mark as a player, as a man.
Sometimes, however, the time is right for a new beginning, no matter how odd breaking from the past may seem.