December 28, 2007

Vincent Lecavalier: Meet Sweeney Schriner

As I said last season, Vincent Lecavalier is my favorite active player. So I'll lay that out right now, as I proclaim Lecavalier to be the best player in hockey so far this season. There are plenty of others who will agree with me.

As of Thursday night, Lecavalier leads the NHL in scoring with 55 points. His 25 goals rank him tied for second most in the league, while his 30 assists land him in the top five. He is the reigning Rocket Richard trophy winner, and a World Cup and Stanley Cup champion. He is, in my opinion, the most exciting player in the league.

But for all of Lecavalier's efforts, none of this is helping his team. The Tampa Bay Lightning struggle mightily thanks mainly to a lack of anything resembling NHL quality goaltending, an up-in-the-air ownership situation, and some real salary cap issues.

The salary cap issues are the most interesting. Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis earn a total of about $21 million. Throw in Dan Boyle, perhaps the only other player worth keeping in Tampa Bay, and his near $4 million and just as importantly his pending unrestricted free agent status in the summer of 2008, and the numbers get real interesting. The Lightning have spent half of their salary cap space on 4 star players.

Rounding out the Tampa roster are some very weak names. No offense to Andre Roy, Chris Gratton, Craig MacDonald, Doug Jannik and all the other has beens, never weres, and please-oh-please-be-a-pleasant-surprise-this-season players in Tampa, but that kind of depth is detrimental to any team nowadays.

Even if St. Louis and especially Richards were performing at a level anywhere near where their salary suggests they should be, the Tampa Bay Lightning aren't going anywhere any time soon. And since these guys eat up so much cap room, it's nearly impossible to find quality support players willing to play for little money.

The situation is even worse in net, where Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist have done their best Dan Cloutier impersonations this season. And with no cap wiggle-room, there's little that can be done to improve the situation.

Denis and his near $3 million contract have been waived this weekend, potentially freeing up some cap space. But maybe the only way the Lightning will be able to acquire a top goalie and significant depth to once again become a Stanley Cup contender will be to move Vincent Lecavalier.

What? Move Vinnie? The hero, the Saviour? I suppose Tampa might want to get rid of Brad Richards' $7.8 million cap hit first, but he's got a no-trade clause and I don't know if there's a team out there that will take on that scary contract load. Martin St. Louis' contract gets a little more favorable as time passes in the next three years, but he too has a no trade clause and is the oldest of the three. Dan Boyle would be the easiest to move, as he's a UFA this coming summer and great trade deadline bait. He, too, has a no trade clause that he'd have to waive, but I suspect that is what will likely happen should Tampa fall out of the playoff race further. But TB's blue line is already sickly thin with him, so I'd hate to see them play without the underrated defenseman.

Which leads us back to Lecavalier. At approximately $7.2 million, he's proven to be worth that kind of money, and there would be takers. And he has no no-trade clauses, making him the most movable of the big four. He'd easily generate the biggest return, possibly 2 or 3 quality NHL players to give the Lightning some badly needed upgrades.

Trading Lecavalier is suicide, and GM Jay Feaster knows it. He's already on record saying he won't be remembered as the general manager who traded Vincent Lecavalier, but his team is terrible and his job is on the line. That being said, all of this talk is probably for not, as the team's ownership transfer has virtually frozen Feaster's ability to make any significant moves.

Still, the debate about trading Lecavalier is fascinating. It reminds me of a great trade way back near the dawn of the second World War.

During the 1930s there was a great player named "Sweeney" Schriner. He was a heck of a left winger, the greatest the game had ever seen proclaimed famed Leafs boss Conn Smythe. Better than Frank Mahovlich. Better than Bobby Hull even. You can read his full biography here.

Schriner was a two time NHL scoring champion, but his New York Americans were spinning their wheels going nowhere fast. Like today's Lightning, they lacked the depth to go anywhere. Schriner was surrounded by has beens and forgetables. At least they, unlike Tampa Bay, had a quality goalie in Shrimp Worters.

While there was no salary cap, the Great Depression still had it's grip on the team's finances. Making matters worse, the Amerks struggled for attention in the Big Apple's sports market. They were a distant second to Manhattan's Rangers.

The Amerks decided to trade Schriner before the 1939-40 season. Smythe traded Buzz Boll, Doc Romnes, Jim Fowler, Murray Armstrong and fallen superstar Busher Jackson to New York all for Schriner.

Schriner went on to help the Leafs win two Stanley Cups during WWII, forever cementing his status as a legend of hockey. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1962.

Despite the overall talent and depth infusion, the Americans didn't fare so well. The team became complete cellar dwellers following the trade. Financial disparity played the biggest role in the Amerks follies, and ultimately led to the suspension of the franchise, renamed the Brooklyn Americans, after 1942. The team was supposed to come back following the war, but the NHL never reinstated them.

One thing is for sure: Tampa GM Jay Feaster knows he has to do something and something soon. He will be forced to do something, or be forced out. But he also already knows the lessons of the Sweeney Schriner trade. You can't trade the best player in the game and get equal returns.

No comments: