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LOS ANGELES – On Jan. 9, Vincent Lecavalier landed in Los Angeles around noon.
When he met the Kings to go over their expectations for him with his new team after a trade a day before from the Philadelphia Flyers they asked him if he wanted to play that day against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Lecavalier was caught off guard by the question. He had played jus seven games for the Philadelphia Flyers and was a healthy scratch for most of the season.
“I was like ‘yeah, let’s do it,’” he said.
He then went to bed for a pre-game nap. When he woke the long cross-country flight hit his 35-year-old body. Soreness and achiness had crept into his limbs and as he tried to move he immediately thought, “oh my god my legs.”
Lecavalier, a veteran of 1,176 NHL games with 414 goals in his NHL career, picked up an assist as the Kings’ fourth-line center against the Maple Leafs.
He played just over nine minutes – and since then has methodically climbed up LA’s depth chart showing that his demise as an NHL player was exaggerated.
“Guys have got to fit in to the teams they’re on,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. “Because Vinny went to Philadelphia and scored 20 goals and whatever happened happened, it’s not necessarily the player. Or maybe it is – you don’t know. Clearly the fit is good for us. Clearly it is.”
The Kings’ system has helped Lecavalier find his groove again. When there’s a mistake Los Angeles often has someone around the area to back up the player. In his short time with the team this has given him confidence. If he makes the wrong decision with the puck, he knows a teammate will help him out. So far Lecavalier has three goals and one assist in six games with LA.
“Here you have to support,” Lecavalier said. “That’s the system – you have to support. You have to be there and it makes things easier because once you get it, you know where your guys are and you know there’s going to be somebody around you that you can give it to and you can go up as five (players) and when you have somebody in trouble you have somebody there for you.”
Sutter has also given Lecavalier a diverse set of roles with the Kings with some time on both the power play and the penalty kill. On the second part of a back-to-back, against the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday, Lecavalier played 43 seconds on the PK. All three of his scores have come on the power play.
“You have to play well defensively,” Lecavalier said. “That’s something that you have to do here and I think that’s why this team is successful. But once you get the puck like every other line you try to score. No matter if it’s the first line or fourth line when you have the puck you try to go to the zone and protect the puck and try to score, so it’s just to be responsible and making good decisions and do that.”
As Lecavalier has gained more of Sutter’s trust, the coach has continued to push the center. In a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars on Tuesday, Sutter put Lecavalier in as the team’s second-line center, moving Jeff Carter to wing with that grouping.
Lecavalier responded with a power play goal in 13:52 of action.
“It’s a power play goal. We’ve seen lots of them over the years from him from that spot. If you think of the power play goals he’s scored in the last two games, one’s a faceoff goal,” Sutter said. “I’ve seen him take that shot lots over his career.”
Lecavalier signed with Philly in the 2013 offseason, after he was bought out from the Tampa Bay Lightning, to play for coach Peter Laviolette. Three games into the 2013-14 season Laviolette was fired and Lecavalier didn’t seem to mesh as well with then-coach Craig Berube. His first season with the Flyers ha had 37 points in 69 games. Last year he had just 20 points in 57 games played.
Even this year with Dave Hakstol coaching the Flyers, Lecavalier played miniscule minutes. Was it something more than just a bad fit with the Flyers? Did they see something off in Lecavlier’s game that the Kings are missing? So far the Kings have forced Lecavalier to earn every minute he's played.
“Vinny’s still a really strong skater. I don’t like talking about it, quite honest … because to me, he’s a great player,” Sutter said. “That’s what I see.”
Lecavalier said he’s still on track to maintain his retirement pledge following the season. He’s signed for another two years and his $2.25 million salary cap hit – the Flyers are retaining 50 percent of his contract – doesn’t fit in with the Kings’ long-term plans.
If anything, his time with the Kings can rewrite his legacy and give him one last shot at a Stanley Cup.
“I’m planning on (retiring) this summer,” Lecavalier said. “I’m going on the present right now. I don’t want to talk about it in five months. I want to think about getting better now and little things I did I can do better and try to do that in practice. “
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