BY SABINA LAM
OTTAWA - Draft day must have felt like déjà vu for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Although the names and faces have changed, the Lightning is in the same boat they were 10 years ago.
When the Lightning took Vincent Lecavalier first overall in 1998, the team had finished dead last in the NHL, had just been sold to life insurance tycoon Art Williams, and questions surrounded GM Phil Esposito (who was eventually fired two games into the 1998-99 season).
Ten years later as the Lightning drafted Steven Stamkos first overall, the team finished at the bottom of league, the franchise’s sale to OK Hockey LLC -headed by Oren Koules and Len Barrie - has just been approved, and GM Jay Feaster is rumored to be shown the door any moment.
Perhaps the only significant difference is no one came out and proclaimed Stamkos to be the Michael Jordan of the NHL, as Williams did prior to drafting Lecavalier.
After taking Stamkos first overall, Koules steered clear of making any bold statements, simply saying Stamkos won’t have nearly the pressure Lecavalier had in his early years and that the 18-year-old will be fortunate to play behind one of the best centers in the game.
Calder talk is already being heaped on Stamkos, who racked up 58 goals and 105 points in 61 games with Sarnia this season, but the 18-year-old took the humble road following his selection.
“My goal right now is to just make the team,” he said. “Obviously, it’s going to be difficult as an 18-year-old, but I’ll try my best and see what happens.”
Lecavalier managed to make the Lightning after his first training camp, but his transition into the NHL wasn’t a smooth one. Playing on a team with a weak supporting cast, he was nevertheless expected to turn the Lightning’s fortunes around without any secondary help.
With established stars Lecavalier, Martin St-Louis and Dan Boyle already in the Tampa lineup, Feaster said Stamkos would not be burdened with the same expectations Lecavalier was.
“He’s not being asked to save the franchise,” said Feaster. “He’s been asked to come in and be part of the ensemble.”
Although the Lightning are wary of placing any more pressure on the No. 1 pick, Feaster did say he thinks Stamkos is NHL-ready now and has him penciled in as the No. 2 center, filling the hole Brad Richards left following his trade to Dallas at the deadline.
Lightning fans surely hope the parallels between Stamkos and Lecavalier can continue with this season’s top pick helping to eventually lead the Lightning to a Stanley Cup victory.