EL SEGUNDO AND LOS ANGELES, CA — After signing with the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2013-14 season, superstar center Vincent Lecavalier played in just 133 regular season games and was out of the Flyers’ plans this season, playing in just seven games.
For a player who scored 411 goals and contributed 511 assists for 932 points in 1,170 regular season games in the National Hockey League, and won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2003-04, being relegated to the press box was very disappointing.
Conventional wisdom dictated that the 35-year-old native of Ile Bizard, Quebec, who was the first overall selection by Tampa Bay in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, was pretty much washed up.
But Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi is known for bucking conventional wisdom, and he did so when he acquired Lecavalier from the Flyers, along with defenseman Luke Schenn, on January 6, hoping that Lecavalier would be an upgrade for his third line center spot, giving the Kings a player who could win face-offs, be solid defensively, and create energy.
Ten games later, Lecavalier has done a lot more for his new team than anyone expected. Indeed, he has also seen significant time on the power play, he has moved up to the second line center spot on occasion, and he has scored four goals while adding two assists for six points.
As for being washed up, Lecavalier proved Lombardi right with an astonishing, jaw-dropping play to set up a goal on January 27, during a 4-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
On the play, Lecavalier took a pass on right wing late in the first period. At nearly full speed, he skated into the right circle where he quickly put the puck between his legs to get past a defenseman before backhanding the puck to forward Trevor Lewis in front, where he re-directed the puck into the net, beating goaltender Calvin Pickard.
Yes, you read that correctly. The not-so-old and definitely not washed up Lecavalier put the puck between his legs at nearly full speed to set up a goal.
“I saw where he pulled it between his legs and then a backhand [pass],” said center Anze Kopitar. “That’s something, I think, he’s done many times before. It’s just that we haven’t seen it too often lately.”
Lecavalier credited the system the Kings play, along with the coaching staff, for his contributions that have exceeded anyone’s wildest dreams, except his own, perhaps.
“It’s been really good,” said Lecavalier. “This is an already established team, an established group. They won two Cups in the last four years. For Luke Schenn and I to come in—two guys coming in—they made us feel pretty welcome and with the system, the coaches are ready.”
“There are some gray areas in hockey, but they make it black and white,” added Lecavalier. “That makes things easier. I feel like everybody’s on the same page. It’s been going pretty well.”
Lecavalier has quickly become a disciple of head coach Darryl Sutter.
“I’ve been with some good coaches in the past, but I feel that, system-wise, this is probably the best I’ve seen in a team, so on that side, it’s been great,” Lecavalier noted. “He made us feel welcome, I think he pushes players to play at their max every night. I’m happy to be a part of that, and playing for him, for sure.”
“I feel that everybody on this team has a role, an important role,” Lecavalier added. “[Sutter] rolls four lines. Some guys play on the power play, a lot of guys play on the penalty-kill, so everybody has a distinct role. I think that’s why it’s been going well. Going into a game, everybody knows that they can make a difference in the game. That puts a good pressure on the players to be focused [in] every game.”
Lecavalier also indicated that the Kings play the game the right way, for this era, anyway.
“Every good team, maybe more so now than ten years ago, there’s a lot more guys who—yeah, you have to score, but you have to be just as good defensively,” he observed. “That’s what the good teams in the league have—a lot of players who play both ways, like here, like Chicago.”
“To be successful, you have to do that, and that’s something that not just one player or two players, but everybody has to do that on this team, or you’re not playing,” he added. “That’s pretty clear.”
Coming from Philadelphia and especially Tampa Bay, Lecavalier has had to adjust to the added emphasis on defense by the Kings.
“It’s a different system, so yeah, [I’ve had to change the way I play, a little], he said. “A lot of [people] say that we’re only a defensive team. But once you have the puck, you have to get off the walls and bring the puck to the net. I would say that you have to be good defensively, and then, when you get into the offensive zone, it’s not just getting rid of it—chipping it in. You chip it to players, you chip it to speed. Execution is really important for Darryl. That’s something for the offense, as well. Defense is important, but offense [is], as well.”
Lecavalier also indicated that as much as he has contributed, he is still in the midst of transitioning from the Flyers to the Kings, and from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference.
“I still have some work to do—videos and stuff like that, to make sure that little things that were in my game are taken out, and vice versa—things that I need to do more,” said Lecavalier. “It’s been good so far, but I’ve got to keep it up.”
“It’s only [ten] games that I’ve been playing, so there’s still some areas in which I need to get better, with the puck and without the puck. But it’s going well, and I want to keep it going.”
“In the regular season, there’s still 30-some-odd games left, so I want to make sure that I [maintain] a high level, because this is a team that plays at a high level every night. I’ve got to make sure that I’m ready every night.”
One thing that has helped Lecavalier is that his family—his wife and three young children—joined him within about a week after the trade came down.
“My family is out here already, and it’s great,” he said. “I love being with my kids, my wife. They moved six or seven days after [the trade]. That’s important for me. We go on the road a lot during a season, so when I’m at home, I like to spend time with them. It’s been good.”
What has also been good for Lecavalier is that he has escaped the dungeon he was in with the Flyers.
“I didn’t want to be there [because I] wasn’t playing,” he explained. “Obviously, you want to say the right things, and in the locker room, you want to be a good teammate. But I didn’t want to be in that atmosphere, just because I wasn’t playing.”
“It was a great bunch of guys and everything,” he elaborated. “But when you’re not playing—even when you’re playing, you don’t have a role. You play five, six minutes. That’s really not the way I envisioned it, so I didn’t really want to be there. I’m happy that something good happened.”
Lecavalier’s new teammates have certainly taken note of his immediate contributions.
“When he was playing in Tampa, he was one of the guys on the board that you’d circle,” said Kopitar. “You needed to pay attention to him. He had a couple of tough years in Philly, but I think coming here, he found his game again, his energy. He’s definitely making some really nice plays for us, and we’re going to need him to continue doing that.”
“I think it was a nice boost for him, coming here, and a nice boost for us to have him here.”
For those wondering, Lecavalier remains adamant about retiring after this season.
“I’ve already made my decision [to retire], and I don’t want to think about that for five months,” he emphasized. “I’m going game-by-game, because I still have to build my confidence, keep pushing. I want to focus on now, not five months from now, or four months from now, whenever that is.”
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