By Pierre LeBrun, Sportsnet.ca
It seems only fitting that as I return home to Toronto from Sportsnet’s Route 87 tour of Western Canada that I watch Vincent Lecavalier play in person.
After all, he is the NHL’s leading scorer. But after the Beatles-like reception in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver for Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby it’s hard to remember that.
Crosby will definitely be "The Man" in the NHL for the next 15 years and deservedly so. But are people overlooking what Lecavalier is doing for the Tampa Bay Lightning right now?
"He is the best player in the league; I don’t think there’s any question about that," Lightning GM Jay Feaster said on the phone to Sportsnet.ca from Tampa on Monday. "I thought he was the best player in the league last year. I think he’s the most complete two-way player in the game today."
Lightning head coach John Tortorella is a sharp cookie. Just because he has battled with Canadian media members over the years doesn’t mean he’s not as media savvy as they come. So it’s no coincidence that before a large Toronto media scrum at Air Canada Centre on Monday morning he made sure to give his opinion on where he thinks Lecavalier stands among the league’s greats.
"He is the best player in the league," Tortorella said. "I don’t care what anybody else talks about. And when I say that, I’m not trying to be disrespectful to anybody else. I just see that as a coach I can put him in any situation and feel comfortable — offensively and defensively. And how he has handled himself in the room and matured there, I just think puts him above and beyond."
Lecavalier is beloved in his native Quebec but in the rest of North America he doesn’t get the same attention as Crosby. That helps to explain why the writers had Lecavalier fourth in Hart Trophy voting last year behind winner Crosby and runners-up Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur.
"If he played in a major media market, or God forbid he played in Canada, they’d be building monuments in his honour," Feaster said. "That’s how good he is. It’s just unfortunate that not everybody seems to know that. And particularly, from a league’s perspective, the league hype machine has really focused on Sidney Crosby and that’s to take nothing away from Sidney Crosby. He’s a great hockey player and there may come a time when he is the best player in the game.
"But I think somewhere along the line the hype machine and the media have forgotten just how good No. 4 is."
Lecavalier says not getting the same attention as Crosby is fine with him.
“Sid should get the attention he’s getting, just by what he’s done already for this league,” said Lecavalier.
So good, you wonder just how much it’s going to cost Feaster to keep him. Lecavalier will enter next season in the final year of a deal that pays him $7.16 million a season. Imagine what he’d fetch on the unrestricted free-agent market come July 2009. And imagine the Montreal Canadiens offering up the maximum possible salary allowed – 20 per cent of the salary cap – which at this year’s $50.3 million would yield Lecavalier about $10 million a year.
Feaster will try to make sure that never happens.
"As far as his future, I’ve made no secret of the fact I want to keep him in a Tampa Bay Lightning uniform for the rest of his career," Feaster said. "I’ve said that publicly, I’ve told him that, I’ve said it in front of his agent, at a public gathering, at a poker tournament, etc. …
"He’s a special young man, he’s a leader; he’s everything we want in a Tampa Bay Lightning player. We’ll get something done, I’m confident of that."
Until Feaster gets Lecavalier to put pen to paper on an extension, the Montreal rumours will not die down. Not with a French-Canadian star that wears the same number as the great Jean Beliveau — and even looks like him. The "Come-Save-The-Habs" campaign in the Montreal media will begin in earnest next year.
"I do love to play in Tampa," Lecavalier said. "I like the organization and I like the team. But it is very far away for any decisions."
Feaster, though, expects Lecavalier will stay put.
"Vinny just invested $3 million of his own money through his foundation to build a pediatric cancer wing in Tampa," Feaster said. "Vinny likes playing in Tampa. Vinny likes being part of this organization. Vinny has expressed no interest whatsoever in leaving. I’m confident that we’ll be able to get a deal done with him."