The Tampa Bay Lighning’s decision to buy out the remainder of Vincent Lecavalier’s contract severed one of the two remaining active links (Martin St. Louis being the other) to their 2004 Stanley Cup championship team.
On June 7, 2004, Lecavalier and St. Louis were among the jubilant Lightning players hoisting the Stanley Cup in triumph before their joyous fans. In a series featuring two unlikely Stanley Cup Finalists, they had beaten the Calgary Flames in a hard-fought series which went the full seven games.
Lecavalier was only 24 but already in his sixth NHL season, on the verge of becoming the superstar he was projected to be when selected first overall in the 1998 Entry Draft.
St. Louis was 28, a diminutive cast-off from the Calgary Flames who blossomed into a superstar, coming off a season where he won the league scoring title and would be awarded the Hart Trophy.
Among them was Brad Richards, the same age as Lecavalier and the quiet star of the bunch, the Lightning’s playoff scoring leader and winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin – who at one point during the season appeared about to lose his starter’s job to backup John Grahame – was outstanding throughout the playoffs, considered by some observers as the Bolts’ real playoff MVP.
There was 29-year-old power forward Fredrik Modin, acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 1999-2000 season, who was third in playoff scoring (19 points) behind only Richards and St.Louis.
Cory Stillman, also 29 and acquired the previous season from the St. Louis Blues, was a late-blooming scorer, potting a career-high 80 points in 81 regular season games.
Defensemen Dan Boyle (acquired from the Florida Panthers two years prior), Pavel Kubina (like Lecavalier and Richards, a homegrown talent) and Cory Sarich (acquired from the Buffalo Sabres) had, with veteran Darryl Sydor, anchored the Lightning blueline corps.
Joining in the Cup celebration was head coach John Tortorella, who guided the Lightning to this unexpected championship, and GM Jay Feaster, who in just 2 1/2 years built a core of talent around Lecavalier and Richards into a champion.
The speed in which the Lightning went from poster child for everything wrong about the NHL’s Sun Belt expansion to Stanley Cup champion stunned the hockey world.
With their core of talent in their mid-to-late twenties, the Lightning appeared poised for several seasons of Cup contention.
As quickly as they rose to dominance, however, the Lightning began to unravel.
Barely six months following the Lightning’s Stanley Cup victory, the NHL locked out its players for an entire season in a nasty labor dispute with the NHLPA. When the NHL return to action in the fall of 2005, the Lightning were the defending champions, but weren’t the same team anymore.
The new salary cap, which the NHL claimed was necessary to save struggling markets like the Lightning, cost them Khabibulin and Stillman to free agency. Age finally caught up with captain Dave Andreychuk, forcing his retirement. The Lightning barely made the 2006 playoffs, bowing out of the first round in five games to the Ottawa Senators.
It didn’t get much better the following season. Though Lecavalier had a career-best 52-goal, 108-point season, the Bolts once again barely made the playoffs, falling in six games to the New Jersey Devils.
The Lightning’s long, sad decline soon accelerated. Apart from a surprise run to the 2011 Eastern Conference Final, they’ve been mired in mediocrity.
Since 2008, their ownership changed hands twice, first to the disastrous OK Hockey group, then to their current owner, Boston-based investor Jeff Vinik.
Tortorella was eventually fired and Feaster would resign in 2008. Most of the remaining cast of core players which carried the Lightning to championship glory gradually departed via trades or free agency.
The most notable was Richards, dealt to the Dallas Stars in 2008. Mounting financial losses and an impending ownership change meant the Bolts couldn’t afford his $7.8 million per season contract.
Boyle’s disastrous trade to San Jose in the summer of 2008 occurred under the OK Hockey ownership, a move done more out of personal vindictiveness than for hockey reasons.
Through it all, the two constants were Lecavalier and St. Louis. They could’ve taken big money elsewhere via free agency or requested trades, joining potential Cup contenders in more established, big-market NHL cities.
Instead, they stayed with the Lightning through the rare good and often very bad times. Critics cited their expensive contracts as a hindrance to management efforts to bolster the roster. However, the pair’s on-ice performance, star power and exemplary character away from the rink made them invaluable to the Lightning’s marketing efforts in recent years.
Ironically, Lecavalier’s best seasons occurred as the Lightning were starting to decline. He won the Richard Trophy in 2006-07 as the league’s top goalscorer, and followed up in 2007-08 with his second-best career numbers in goals (40), assists (52) and points (92).
In September, 2008, he would be named team captain for the second time in his career.Though no one knew it at the time, Lecavalier’s best years were by that point behind him. A series of nagging wrist and shoulder injuries hampered his effectiveness, and entering his mid-thirties he seems to have lost a step.
It was Lecavalier’s long-term contract – an 11-year, $85 million monstrosity offered him by the OK Hockey ownership – which ultimately ensured his premature departure.
Following yet another stupid NHL lockout, the salary cap for 2013-14 was set at $64.3 million, providing the Lightning little cap space to re-sign key players and improve their roster depth. With NHL teams allowed two amnesty buyouts, the Lightning had little choice but to exercise that option on Lecavalier. Like Richards before him, the Lightning simply couldn’t afford his contract anymore.
It wasn’t something Lecavalier or the current Lightning ownership and management wanted. Despite his age, injury history and declining production, Lecavalier remained very popular, not only with Lightning fans but throughout the Tampa Bay community for his charitable work.
Young superstar Steven Stamkos had taken over as the face of the franchise and ageless wonder St. Louis was a more consistent star, but Lecavalier remained as beloved as ever among Lightning fans.
With Lecavalier’s departure, only St. Louis remains from that magical championship run of nine years ago. While still a superstar at age 38, he’s in the twilight of his NHL playing career.
The Lightning, meanwhile, have hit the reset on the rebuilding process started by GM Steve Yzerman three years ago. They’ve changed coaches and brought in promising young goalies Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback. They also have a good young blueliner in Victor Hedman, a decent secondary scorer in Teddy Purcell, and an ageing, banged-up power forward in Ryan Malone.
During the 2013 NHL draft, they selected scoring winger Jonathan Drouin, whom many experts consider the heir apparent to St. Louis.
It will take time for the Lightning to rebuild into a perennial playoff contender again, perhaps more time than St. Louis has remaining in his NHL career. It could take even longer to get them back into Cup contention. Lecavalier will be long-gone by then, and St Louis retired.
For Lecavalier, St. Louis and long-suffering Lightning fans, the magical run of 2004 and the bright future it once promised has instead become an enduring Stanley Cup hangover with no immediate end in sight.