When the L.A. Kings traded for Vincent Lecavalier earlier this month, the expectations for him were spectacularly low. The team needed center depth. A veteran option who could fill the void of a Mike Richards down the stretch. No one was expecting him to score a pile of goals in California. Not after how his tenure with the Philadelphia Flyers went.
In the summer of 2013, the Tampa Bay Lightning bought out Lecavalier’s astronomical 11-year, $85 million contract. He only made it four years into the deal before Steve Yzerman decided to ax it with a compliance buyout. He’d spent 14 years in Tampa, and suddenly found himself as a free agent after becoming the most expensive buyout in NHL history.
Former Flyers GM Paul Holmgren came calling with a five-year, $22.5 million offer. The veteran accepted and was slated to be a key part of Peter Laviolette’s high-tempo offensive system. Three games into the 2013-14 season, Holmgren fired Laviolette and replaced him with Craig Berube. He installed a system that made more sense for the Flyers roster, but it didn’t click with the plan that had been in place for Lecavalier.
The veteran suffered through two seasons of healthy scratches and unfulfilled expectations in Philadelphia, scoring 28 goals in 133 games before the Kings swooped in and made a deal. They sent Jordan Weal and a third-round pick the Philadelphia for Lecavalier and Luke Schenn.
It was a classic Dean Lombardi addition. A former team captain and Stanley Cup winner who could bring some offensive punch despite his age. Expectations for Lecavalier were low, but he’s been outstanding for the Kings through his first six games. He already has three goals on the year, matching what he managed during his final 34 contests as a Flyer.
Whenever trades occur for assets like Lecavalier, the hope is that a change of scenery will do the player some good. He was clearly in a bad situation with the Flyers and didn’t fit in with where the team was headed. That’s not his fault, as the organization shifted directions just a few games into his time there, but things were getting mucky in Philly.
Lecavalier has been rejuvenated with the Kings though, channeling the offensive powerhouse he was earlier in his career in small bursts–essentially what the Flyers were hoping for in 2013 when they signed him. This is still a smart player and a forward who has 936 career points to his name. At 35, he can’t skate like he used to but that was never what made Lecavalier a special player.
During his heyday in Tampa, he used his smarts and shot to catch defenses napping. He was a top-line player at that point, squaring off with the opposition’s best defenders. And he thrived. Now in L.A., he’s getting the chance to play with Jeff Carter and Tanner Pearson. That’s a much better situation than the one he was dealing with in Philadelphia.
Lecavalier isn’t a checking-line forward. He’s a capable penalty killer, but that’s never been his bread and butter. The first-overall pick from the 1998 draft thrives when he’s getting beneficial zone starts while playing with equally skilled players. Carter and Pearson both fit the bill and can pass the puck as well as they can shoot.
The three of them together make a ton of sense, and are capable of keeping defenses guessing while the top line handles the tough assignments.
As surprising as he has been during five-on-five play, Lecavalier has been even better on the power play. All three of his tallies with the Kings have come with the extra man, and he’s making the second unit just as dangerous as the top group. The slap shot is still there. The vision is still there, and Lecavalier still has a nose for the net–all assets that made him a high-end power-play performer in Tampa.
Sometimes players and teams just don’t fit. Lecavalier was the face of the Lightning for a number of years and piled on the points alongside some great forwards. The fit wasn’t there in Philadelphia, and it showed out on the ice on a nightly basis. He wasn’t playing at a high level and wasn’t being given the opportunities to show his worth.
With the Flyers, every mistake Lecavalier made was amplified. They don’t support the puck the same way they do in L.A. It’s a simple systems difference, but one that has made a world of difference for a smart player like Lecavalier. He can take some risks and try to make things happen in the offensive zone without potentially getting stapled to the bench for a week if something doesn’t work.
That has led to confidence, and that confidence has led to plays like this one.
It’s important to note that he’s getting rewarded for his play as well. Head coach Darryl Sutter didn’t start Lecavalier as the No. 2 center , but bumped him up against the Dallas Stars and was rewarded with another power-play goal. This is a matter of fit and opportunity, and Lecavalier is getting those chances again in Los Angeles.
The forward has indicated that 2015-16 will be his last in the NHL. If that’s the case, then he’s in the middle of an outstanding farewell tour with the Kings.