Without nearly as much fanfare, it appears that the ownership situation surrounding the Tampa Bay Lightning might be in a perilous situation that could start to approach that of the Phoenix Coyotes' before former 'Yotes owner Jerry Moyes put that team into bankruptcy.
The big difference between the two situations is that the NHL looks as if it has been able to find a stable buyer of its choosing before anything truly calamitous happened with the Lightning, a Stanley Cup winner in 2004 that ranked among NHL attendance leaders for a few seasons. The Hockey News' Ken Campbell, about as well connected as any Toronto-based hockey reporter, has been all over this one and is reporting that the Lightning could be sold imminently to Boston-based hedge fund operator Jeffrey Vinik.
For hockey fans, most of whose eyes must glaze over whenever they hear that another team's ownership is in trouble (save those in Canada who salivate at the thought of a struggling U.S. Sun Belt franchise possibly re-locating back to the Great White North), this story has one very juicy tidbit that could affect the Lightning's on-ice product. Campbell is reporting that as part of Vinik's purchase of the team the Lightning would immediately trade Vincent Lecavalier to get his 2009-10 salary of $10 million off the books. According to NHLNumbers.com, the Lightning are less than $4.6 million from the league's salary cap.
Of course, Lecavalier, who has a no-trade clause, would have to approve any such deal and we've seen how that can go (see Heatley, Dany). By trading Lecavalier, whose cap hit is only $7.27 million (annual cap figures are the average of each year's salary divided by the number of years on the contract), the Lighting would still be above the league's cap floor of $40.6 million and would probably be a lot closer towards breaking even -- even if their on-ice product would no doubt suffer. In fact, Lecavalier would have 10 more years and about $75 million left on the deal after this season.
Larry Brooks of the New York Post has reported twice this week that 10 NHL teams are suffering double-digit declines in revenues from 2008-09 to 2009-10. Campbell says that the Lightning's paid attendance is averaging only 10,500 per game. So it would not be a huge stretch to guess that Tampa Bay is one of those teams whose revenues are down double digits this season and that a new owner, coming from a hedge-fund background, would seek to cut costs immediately. Florida has been one of the hardest-hit states by the Great Recession and the Lightning, while in playoff contention this season -- though hardly blowing the doors off -- have not made the postseason since they were a first-round loser in 2007. The economy and poor play would both be factors that would complicate selling tickets, luxury box suites, premium tickets and sponsorships -- in essence, all of the things that make hockey teams money -- in that market.
But what would trading Lecavalier do to the Lightning? As long-time Lightning beat writer Erik Erlendsson writes, it "could be a sure way to alienate a season-ticket base that already has thinned out the past two seasons" -- once one of the most vibrant of NHL nontraditional markets. During my years on the Thrashers' beat, I watched up close the rebuilding project that the Washington Capitals took on after electing to trade Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Gonchar, Michael Nylander, Peter Bondra, Steve Konowalchuk and virtually every other veteran with almost any trade value back in 2004. The Capitals were dreadful for years and the then-MCI Center was about as bereft of fans as any arena in the NHL for a number of seasons.
But astute drafting by Caps general manager George McPhee and the amassing of draft picks that came with those trades turned into Alexander Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Jeff Schultz and on and on and on that has turned the Caps not only into perhaps hockey's most exciting team but also a raging box office success. If the Lightning traded Lecavalier, surely, as Erlendsson suggests, they would face some kind of backlash. But they also are much farther along in their rebuilding process than Washington was at the time of its rebuilding project and would retain noted veterans like Martin St. Louis and Ryan Malone. In Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman already in place, they have the core of their future intact. If they were to add, as Campbell suggests, defenseman Jack Johnson, winger Wayne Simmonds and draft picks from the Los Angeles Kings, the Lightning might only be a few years away from a, pardon the pun, phoenix-like resurrection from the ashes.
Since I formerly covered the Thrashers and still closely follow that team's progress, I often view events in terms of how they would affect Atlanta. Moving Lecavalier to Los Angeles could be one of the best things ever to happen to the Thrashers. Not only would it remove a perennial Thrasher-killer from a Southeast Division rival, but in the process it also would remove the team that I view as the most likely landing source of Thrashers soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, Ilya Kovalchuk.
To me, Los Angeles would appear to be an ideal location for Kovalchuk to land: Great weather, little media scrutiny and a vastly improved young team whose presence he could make into a Stanley Cup contender. Plus, the Kings have cap room and a stable, deep-pocketed owner in billionaire Philip Anschutz. Remove the Kings as a potential bidder in the Kovalchuk sweepstakes come July 1 and, in my mind, the chances of Kovalchuk re-signing in Atlanta greatly increase.
So, there you have it. Winners and losers of a potential Lecavalier trade. Any winner, no doubt, would be the team that landed one of hockey's classiest and most talented players. Tangentially, Atlanta also could be a winner in both a short-term and long-term sense. And while the Lightning would definitely be a short-term loser (though not in the fiscal sense), if they manage their team properly they could be a long-term success -- especially if they finally land a stable, wealthy owner.