Easy Does It
Lowly Tampa Bay isn't cavalier about developing Vincent Lecavalier
Another lightning season is lost—Tampa Bay was 9-28-3 through Sunday—and in this bleak environment the education of 18-year-old rookie center Vincent Lecavalier, the No. 1 pick in last June's draft, will continue. Lecavalier has been compared with Mario Lemieux by scouts and dubbed the Michael Jordan of hockey by Lightning owner Art Williams. The future of the Tampa Bay franchise rests on the narrow shoulders of the 6'4", 195-pound Lecavalier.
"The challenge is to help him along without putting him in a position where he loses confidence," says Bruins general manager Harry Sinden. "As anyone who has raised kids knows, the years between 18 and 20 are a very developmental stage. That extends to hockey."
Playing in the NHL, where savvy veterans often turn defensive gaffes into goals, can prove dispiriting for even the most talented young players. The Lightning has a history of stunting the development of its rising talent. Four high first-round draft picks, defenseman Roman Hamrlik (No. 1 in 1992), center Chris Gratton (No. 3 in '93), wing Jason Wiemer (No. 8 in '94) and center Daymond Langkow (No. 5 in '95), each were given extensive NHL ice time before they could handle it All were overwhelmed, their confidence shaken and their development impeded. Each has subsequently been traded by Tampa Bay (although Gratton was reacquired last month).
Things may be different for Lecavalier. Lightning coach Jacques Demers, who took over Tampa Bay in November 1997, has handled his prize pupil with care. Through Sunday he had played Lecavalier an average of 12:30 a game, 39th among rookies, and hadn't used him against the opposition's top line. Demers also has urged the Lightning front office to continue promoting and marketing veterans, such as Darcy Tucker and Wendel Clark, instead of training the spotlight on Lecavalier. "We know what we have in Vinnie," says Demers. "He's too important to just throw into the fire."
Despite being eased in, Lecavalier, who at week's end had seven goals and four assists, has had a rough time defensively. Tampa Bay's dismal record and usually somber locker room haven't made his rookie season any easier. "It's been tough," says Lecavalier. "I have to remind myself to stay positive, not let mistakes happen twice."
For all his struggles Lecavalier has shown precocious ability and considerable improvement. In a game last week against the Maple Leafs he had a breakaway, but he shot low and was stoned by goalie Curtis Joseph. Minutes later Lecavalier had another scoring chance against Joseph, and this time he shot high and scored.
" Lecavalier's going to be a very good player," says Panthers president Bill Torrey. "The way the Lightning has played, the temptation must be great for Jacques to make him the focal point right now. But if you do that, you're taking a risk. There's a lot at stake."
Open Mouth, Insert Skate
In two weeks Devils defenseman Scott Stevens will likely play in the All-Star Game for the 10th time in his 17-year NHL career. He has been New Jersey's captain for seven seasons and led the Devils to the Stanley Cup in 1995. At the moment, though, he's a difficult guy to respect.