Are two NHL stars past their primes?

A defining moment linking two NHL stars that sticks in the memory of hockey fans was the unexpected fight between Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla and Tampa Bay Lightning star Vincent Lecavalier during Game 3 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final.

It’s rare to see a fight during a Stanley Cup Finals game in today’s NHL, rarer still when it’s two scoring stars chucking knuckles.

Iginla had always been known as a star unafraid to fight his own battles. Having won his second Richard Trophy performance as the league’s top goal scorer in 2003-04, Iginla was well established as a hard-hitting offensive force. The scrap with Lecavalier burnished that reputation.

At the time, hockey analyst Bill Clement called that moment “the continuation of the development” of Lecavalier. Then-Lightning coach John Tortorella was shown on national television applauding Lecavalier’s actions and later commended the big center’s willingness to stand his ground against Iginla.

Until that moment, Lecavalier was seen primarily as a one-dimensional scoring forward, but his willingness to tangle with one of the toughest fighters in the league during a Finals game significantly changed that reputation and is considered the moment that vaulted him into the upper echelon of the league’s top players.

But that was then, this is now. And speculation is growing that Iginla and Lecavalier’s best seasons could be behind them, given the significant drops in their respective numbers.

Iginla’s 32 goals last season were his lowest since his 31 goals in 2000-01, while his 69 points was 20 fewer than in 2008-09. It wasn’t the first time Iginla’s point production had dropped into the 60s during his career, so it wasn’t seen as much cause for concern. Especially considering Iginla produced seasons of 94, 98 and 89 points from 2006-07 to 2008-09, reaching the 50-goal mark in 2007-08 for the second time in his career.

This season, however, the 33-year-old’s slow start has generated real concern among Flames followers. With only three goals and 10 points in his first 16 games, Iginla is on pace for a 15-goal, 50-point season, which would be his lowest offensive output since his NHL sophomore season of ’97-’98.

It also has reignited trade speculation that briefly popped up last spring when the Flames missed the playoffs. Some observers are daring to suggest what was once considered unthinkable: If the Flames fail to improve this season, Iginla should be dealt in hopes of landing a significant return while his trade value remains high.

While there’s little doubt Iginla would attract considerable attention if the Flames shopped him, it would be very difficult to trade him given his $7 million per season salary on a contract that doesn’t expire until 2013 and includes a “no-movement” clause.

That’s unlikely to keep the rumormongers at bay, especially if the Flames appear out of this season’s playoff race by the Feb. 28 trade deadline.

Meanwhile, Lecavalier has seen his stock plummet considerably over the previous two seasons with performances of 67 and 70 points, respectively. Nagging shoulder and wrist injuries, the incompetence of the previous Lightning ownership and near-constant rumors he would be dealt during the ’08-’09 season to the Montreal Canadiens were certainly contributing factors.

So, too, might be the pressure of playing up to the 11-year, $85 million contract he signed in the summer of 2008. When he signed that deal, Lecavalier was considered the franchise player around whom the Lightning would rebuild into a Stanley Cup contender.

That role has been usurped by 20-year-old superstar Steven Stamkos, who in his sophomore season shared the 2009-10 Richard Trophy with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, led the Lightning in points and was fifth overall in the league in that category.

This season, Stamkos is again challenging for the league lead in goals and points while Lecavalier had only three goals and nine points in 14 games before suffering a broken right hand that will keep him sidelined for at least a month.

New Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher praised Lecavalier’s performance before the injury, claiming he was on the cusp of becoming a more complete player rather than merely the offensive one who hit his stride in 2006-07. He  scored 52 goals and 108 points that season and won the Richard Trophy, then followed up with a 40-goal, 92-point performance in 2007-08..

He’ll undoubtedly continue to develop his game, but his lower offensive numbers combined with that huge contract will be seen by detractors merely as proof Lecavalier, at 30, is now past his prime.

It remains to be seen if Lecavalier and Iginla, who were teammates for Canada’s 2004 World Cup of Hockey championship team and 2006 Olympic hockey team, have had their best days. It wouldn’t be the first time star players in their early 30s endured a decline in their production only to rebound strongly. But the reality could be that both players simply are not capable of carrying the offensive load anymore for their respective teams and might be better off playing more supporting roles.

It could be too hasty to write off Iginla and Lecavalier as past their respective playing primes, but it seems apparent their best days are no longer ahead of them.