The Pending (?) Lecavalier Trade

It's interesting how the so-called "rumors" of Vincent Lecavalier being traded from January have slipped into a being a distinct possibility in April. Not just a possibility, but perhaps even a likelihood. And the fan outrage from January about it has faded into a peevish dissatisfaction.

I have to admit that if Vinny Lecavalier is at Tampa Bay Lightning training camp come September, I will be very surprised.

Let's be honest, through serious mismanagement, the Tampa Bay Lightning simply cannot afford him - despite having been the ones who negotiated that 11-year, $85 million contract extension with Lecavalier in the first place. They just laid off 20 people from the front office just yesterday. If you can't see the writing on the wall just with that, then I don't think I can penetrate the level of denial that you're living in.

If Lecavalier's lucky, they'll trade him before his contract extension kicks in July 1st. If he's really unlucky, he could be sitting out or playing hockey in Europe next season because they didn't trade him before July 1st but instead tried to trade him afterwards.

To current team ownership, no-trade clauses mean absolutely nothing. They happily signed Dan Boyle to a contract with a no-trade clause last February, and still managed to move him by July. So even if they can't find a deal they like before that contract extension kicks in, they might try to force Vinny into allowing them to move him to another team, anyways - like they did with Boyle. And if Lecavalier gets stubborn about it and says no, then that could mean him sitting out or playing in another league. Or more.

The initial former head coach, John Tortorella, was furious with how he was fired. Boyle complained of being treated very badly when he was forced to waive his no-trade clause. Former GM Jay Feaster was ignored by ownership and management alike until he got the hint and quietly went away on his own.  The former head coach after Tortorella, Barry Melrose, was unceremoniously canned after 16 games. Mark Recchi wasn't impressed with how he was treated when he was dealt to Boston. And I suspect that Gary Roberts was conveniently forced to retire in an equally unpleasant fashion, but is so far keeping quiet. Obviously, this ownership/management group already has something of an unsavory track record in how they deal with people they find to be expendable.

So if Lecavalier genuinely believes that they'll follow through with their promise to contact him, and/or his agent, before they start talking with other teams, then he's a wide-eyed optimist. They certainly didn't do that before they almost traded him to Montréal in January. And I seriously doubt that they'll do it before they actually do ship him off sometime this summer.

It could get really ugly, and really complicated, really fast. And it could end up involving a lot more than just a single player, his agent, and the GM. The worst case scenario could involve the players union, the league, the owners, and litigation. It just depends on how both sides deal with any of a number of scenarios.

So what are the facts that lead to the conclusion that Lecavalier is likely gone?

  • Dan Boyle signed a 6-year, $40 million contract with a no-trade clause 25 February 2008.
  • Steven Stamkos is drafted first overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa 20 June 2008.
  • Barry Melrose is hired as coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning 24 June 2008
  • Boyle is traded to San Jose with Brad Lukowich for Matt Carle, Ty Wishart, and two draft picks 04 July 2008.
  • Vincent Lecavalier signed an 11-year, $85 million contract 13 July 2008.
  • Melrose is fired 16 games into the season 15 November 2008. Rumors went around that Lecavalier was a reason why he was fired.
  • By 14 January 2009, while the team was in California, rumors are flying that there's a deal in the works between Tampa Bay and Montréal. Lightning GM Brian Lawton flatly denies the rumors that he has been shopping Lecavalier to Montréal.
  • Lecavalier goes to the All-Star Game in Montréal 25 January 2009 and holds court with all of the NHL's Canadian hockey media stating over and over again that he has no control over the situation.
  • 18 February 2009, Montréal Canadiens' GM Bob Gainey reveals that negotiations with Tampa Bay for a Lecavalier trade were, in fact, going on in January.
  • Lecavalier's season ends early by having wrist surgery 03 April 2009.
  • Stamkos ends rookie season with 23 goals and an invite to Team Canada at the World Championships.
  • The Tampa Bay Lightning ends the 2008-2009 29th overall in the NHL, and is awarded the second overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft in Montréal.

(The bottom line is this: Lecavalier was expendable the moment they drafted a center (Stamkos) first overall in the 2008 draft. It was just a matter of when Stamkos would be ready to carry the team on his own. Since the ownership insisted early on that Stamkos stay and play in Tampa, instead of being sent back to juniors like he probably should've been, that was probably going to happen sooner rather than later in the eyes of the ownership. And that's not Stamkos's fault; that's just how the business side of hockey goes. The younger and cheaper player typically wins out over the older and more expensive player of a similar talent level.)

***

The fundamental problem with Lecavalier's contract situation is one simple fact - under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), players are not allowed to renegotiate standing contracts. Article 11, Section 11.10 of the NHL-NHLPA 2005 CBA states that "No Renegotiation. In no event shall a Club or a Player negotiate a change any terms of a Player SPC [Standard Player's Contract] for the then-current season or for any remaining season of an SPC."

I can understand why the NHLPA would want that little blurb in there, but it's a little shortsighted if you ask me. There should've been some amendment to that allowing renegotiation under certain extenuating circumstances. The economy notwithstanding. It helps the players in the short run, but not in the long run. In Lecavalier's situation, if allowed to renegotiate in the case where the contract is detrimental to the team due to economics (yes, I know - really poor management), and if the player is above a certain age and wants to stay since he has a vested interest in the community and has been with the same team for a certain length of time, then they should be able to do that.

I realize the NHLPA's argument against that is that the team should never have signed a player to a contract that they ultimately couldn't afford and the team ought to pay the penalty - even if it's at the detriment of the individual player. And it sets a bad precedent to allow a player to downgrade his contract in the overall scheme of the union. It's for the greater good of the union and the players overall and blah, blah, blah. But ultimately, shouldn't it be the other way around? Isn't the union supposed to represent the players and not the players represent the union?

I can't help but wonder if Lecavalier realizes just how much power he has in this situation. It'd be easy for a person in his position to feel powerless, but he's probably got the most power of anyone in this situation. For instance, he can beat the team to the punch and ask for a trade before the draft. Or, in the event that they try to force him to waive his no-trade clause after July 1st, he can refuse and cause all kinds of problems. Not just for the team, but for the NHL and/or the NHLPA. He could force a revamp the CBA all on his own, for good or ill. He doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who would do that, but there are all kinds of options there for him to do, or not do, as the case may be.

***

No one wants to see Lecavalier go - his coaches don't, his teammates don't, the fans don't, and Vinny himself doesn't, either. Whether the owners and management do or not is up for debate. But the fact is that he was as good as gone when they drafted Stamkos, traded Boyle, and signed Melrose last July - even before he signed that contract. It was just a matter of time is all. That was obvious to me at the time, although most people didn't seem to understand that.

Now it's a matter of where he'll end up. The most obvious choice is Montréal, but I don't know if that's likely. They definitely want him, but does he want them? And if it is open season on Lecavalier, and the entire league gets a shot at him, will the Canadiens be able to offer the best deal? Who needs a world-class center in his prime, who has the depth to get him, and who can afford his contract under the salary cap? I'm guessing that there are only a handful of teams that would be able to meet all of those criteria.

I haven't touched on whether or not Tampa Bay will get what they should for Lecavalier in a trade. The reason for that is what most people would agree would be a good deal is probably not what the Lightning will want. In January, the asking price seemed to be pretty high - or so the rumors went. However, I think that the asking price is going to drop significantly this summer for payroll reasons and due to time constraints. There's no way that the Lightning are going to be able to get what he's worth out of another team - even the generally agreed value and not the pie in the sky value they'd placed on him midway through the season. Other teams know that they have to get him off their payroll before July 1st, so other teams will work that to their advantage. I expect they'll end up trading him for almost nothing because of it. Relatively speaking, I mean.

Will Lecavalier stay? Will he go? And if he goes, where will he end up? Your guess is as good as mine. Right now, though, it looks as if he'll probably end up going. We'll see how it ends up. Eventually.

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