TAMPA, Fla. - Vincent Lecavalier has been the face of the Tampa Bay Lightning for much of his career.
Now he's a symbol of the team's rebuilding effort.
The Lightning announced Thursday that they will buy out the final seven years of their captain's contract.
Lecavalier, a constant for the Lightning from when he was the No. 1 pick in 1998, will become an unrestricted free agent July 5, assuming he clears buyout waivers.
Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman called Lecavalier to tell him the news this morning. Lecavalier said he was eating breakfast with his family at the time.
After 14 years in Tampa Bay, the 33-year-old said it's difficult to think his time in the city might be over.
"It's tough to imagine," Lecavalier said on a conference call Thursday. "The last few weeks we've had a few conversations with the organization but you really don't know until it happens.
"When you get the phone call and you're told you can't play for the Lightning, it was pretty rough on everybody. My family, and myself, I've been there 14 years so it was definitely—and still is—very hard."
Lecavalier had US$45 million left on his contract and will be paid two-thirds of that over the next 14 years. The Lightning will get relief from the centre's $7.727-million salary cap hit.
"We believe this will prove to be a pivotal move for us as we strive to achieve our long-term goal of competing at the highest level, year-in, year-out," Yzerman said Thursday in a statement. "The economics and structure of the CBA are necessitating this decision and we at the Lightning are excited at the newly created opportunities this presents to us."
Lecavalier said he understands that the NHL must operate as a business. The all-star centre deflated any notion that he was angry or upset with the team's decision.
"I think the new CBA puts the team in a tough spot and that's why it's understandable," Lecavalier said. "It was their decision and I have to respect that.
"It's been talked about since the new CBA has come out and I'm not at all (angry). What I'm saying right now is the truth. I understand the business side of it. Things can change and a new CBA can make teams have to make decisions."
Bought out more because of his high cap hit and lengthy contract, Lecavalier instantly becomes the most attractive unrestricted free agent on the market.
He had 383 goals and 491 assists in 1,037 NHL games, all with Tampa Bay. He was a key piece to the Lightning's only championship and stayed with the team along with Martin St. Louis as it went through massive turnover after the 2004-05 lockout and beyond.
"Vinny has been a significant reason for many of our past successes, including the 2004 Stanley Cup, and his contributions to the community are immeasurable," Yzerman said. "The Lightning organization is indebted to Vinny; we thank him for all he has done here and we wish him well as he moves forward."
Fifteen years to the date after he was drafted by Tampa, the former Lightning captain will have to get used to the thought of playing for another team.
Though he did say he's excited to begin the upcoming season—no matter where he may be when the puck drops this fall—Lecavalier admitted that it's a hard to think about right now.
"The thought of wearing a different jersey is kind of weird," Lecavalier said. "All the T-shirts when I work out in the morning it's all Tampa Bay Lightning, but it's a challenge and I'm very motivated right now.
"I'm going to work really hard to be in top shape when I get to a training camp somewhere else with different players and a different environment. I'm really excited about that."
Lecavalier, who tasted Stanley Cup victory with the Lightning in 2004, said he hasn't thought much about which specific team he'd like to play for next season. He did say that he'd be drawn toward a serious contender, however.
"As a hockey player, you want to win," he said. "You want to be in a situation where you think a team can have success or a team that can be close to turning it around and you think they can really make that push.
"I think that's going to be one of my motivations. I want to help a team get where they want to go and hopefully I can be one of their assets to bring them there."
—With files from Canadian Press reporters Stephen Whyno and Melissa Couto.