Vincent Lecavalier was having breakfast with the family early Thursday morning when he received a phone call he had been dreading for some time.
It was Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman on the other end to announce to his team captain that the club would be buying out the final seven years of his 11-year, $85 million contract.
Just like that, Lecavalier’s 14 years in a Tampa Bay Lightning uniform came to an end.
“It’s really hard, but you have to move on,” Lecavalier said in a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, just five hours after receiving the news. “I’ve had a lot of great times over there but I guess I have to turn the page somewhat and try to go play for another team.”
Lecavalier said he holds no grudge against the Lightning, understanding the cap implications of the buy-out, but it was still difficult getting the news that he will no longer play for the only franchise he has known during his 14-year career.
“It’s going to be tough,” Lecavalier said. “The only thing I can say is I’m going to have to adapt. There’s no choice, either for me or my family, we’re going to have to go somewhere else. It is hard. Today is a tough day.”
The buyout allows the Lightning to remove Lecavalier’s $7.73 million cap hit from the books, while the team will have to pay him two thirds of the remaining value of the contract across the next 14 years.
“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,” 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.
“After much internal deliberation, 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.”
At the same time, this creates an opportunity for Lecavalier, as well.
After having grown up practically hand in hand with the Lightning franchise since he was selected with the top pick in the 1998 NHL Draft, Lecavalier will have the opportunity to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent July 5 for the first time in his career.
“Even the thought of wearing a different jersey is kind of weird right now in my head. All the t-shirts when I work out in the morning, it’s all the Tampa Bay Lightning,” Lecavalier said. “But it’s a challenge. I’m very, very motivated right now and I’m going to work really hard to be in top shape when I get to training camp somewhere else.”
That “somewhere else” should be a topic for hot stove fodder right up until July 5, with Lecavalier saying his “door is open to the 29 other teams right now.” Two of the most talked about landing spots were brought up with Lecavalier on Thursday.
The first would be his hometown of Montreal to play with the Canadiens. Lecavalier has been down that road before, with the Lightning and Canadiens engaging in trade talks in 2009 that ultimately fizzled. That entire season Lecavalier gave interview after interview talking about the possibility of playing for the Canadiens, culminating in a press conference during All-Star Weekend in Montreal where that was the lone topic of conversation.
Now, four years later, Lecavalier is talking about the same hypothetical situation.
“Montreal is a special place with a lot of history and it can offer a lot,” Lecavalier said. “They have a good team, they proved it last year, so I’m open to Montreal. But I’m not closing the door on anyone. The door is open for everyone and after that we’ll see.”
The other destination would be the Detroit Red Wings, where Lecavalier could team with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk to create a similar three-pronged attack that he had in Tampa with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.
Lecavalier said he grew up “idolizing” the Red Wings as his favorite team, along with the Canadiens, and “ironically, Steve Yzerman was my favorite hockey player.”
“Detroit has made the playoffs the last 20 years; they’re a great team, a great organization,” he said. “It’s definitely a place I would consider, for sure.”
However, Lecavalier was adamant that he hadn’t reached that stage of the decision-making process just yet, one that he has never had to go through before. He said in the coming days he will sit down with his agent Kent Hughes and his wife Caroline to discuss their options, but there a few things Lecavalier already knows.
He said he would prefer to sign a longer-term contract rather than a series on one-year deals to provide some stability for his family, and that he’d like that contract to bring him right to retirement, much like the one he had signed with the Lightning that was bought out Thursday.
“I signed my last deal because I wanted to play with the Lightning the rest of my career, but things happen,” Lecavalier said. “Things do happen, so I have to move on.”
He was asked whether or not he would consider signing a short-term deal in order to return to Tampa afterwards, and Lecavalier did not appear to like the idea.
“I’m sad to leave, but I’m moving on and I don’t really want to think about going back,” he said. “I’m not really there yet. I want to sign somewhere and I want to be happy, I want my family to be happy and we’ll go from there.”
Though Lecavalier has not played that role in Tampa for some time, he believes he can still be a top-line center in the NHL and intends to prove that with his new club.
“I believe in my abilities and I think I can be a top center for a team,” he said. “It remains to be seen what the other teams think of me, but I have confidence in my abilities.”
In 2012-13, Lecavalier was fourth on the Lightning in scoring, registering 10 goals and 32 points in 39 games. He also had five power-play goals. He said ankle injuries hampered him throughout the season but that he is completely healthy now and eager to show it.
“I’m so motivated to go somewhere else and prove that I can play at a high level,” Lecavalier said. “I believe in myself and I believe in what I can bring to a team. I want to win, so I’m real excited about that.”
Lecavalier had a stellar run with the Lightning. He holds many of the team’s records, including games played (1,037), goals (383), power-play goals (112) and game-winning goals (60). He had 12 consecutive seasons of 20-or-more goals and won the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy with 52 goals in 2006-07.
Lecavalier was also extremely active in the community, receiving both the King Clancy Memorial Trophy and the NHL Foundation Player Award for his efforts. His biggest contribution to the Tampa Bay community was spearheading the construction of the Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorder Center at All Children’s Hospital with a $3 million personal pledge towards the project, one Lecavalier said he intends to honor fully. The center opened its doors in 2010, and last year it performed more than 50 bone marrow transplants, saw 125 new patients and treated 4,000 kids on an outpatient basis.
“Tampa is like home for me,” Lecavalier said. “Most of my life has been in Tampa, that’s why it’s really hard. But I really want to be involved and keep my word.”