Vincent Lecavalier is leaving the only NHL club he has ever known.
The 33-year-old Lecavalier, selected first overall in 1998 by the Tampa Bay Lightning, was told exactly 15 years later that he will be bought out by the club due to his prohibitive contract.
Lecavalier represented a salary cap hit of more than $7.7 million US. Under NHL buyout guidelines, he will be paid $30 million (two-thirds of what remained on his contract), spread out over 14 years (twice the number of years left on the contract).
The six-foot-four centre said on a media conference call Thursday said that while the reality of the salary cap going down next season made him realize a buyout was possible, the news still hit him hard when he received the phone call from Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman.
"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," said Lecavalier, who has three children with his wife Carolina.
"I think the new CBA [collective bargaining agreement] puts the team in a tough spot and that's why it's understandable. It was their decision and I have to respect that."
Lecavalier, captain of the Lightning since 2000, said he hasn't even begun to think about specific teams he'd consider signing with as a free agent. But in a general sense, it didn't sound as if he's interested in starting from the bottom again.
"As a hockey player you want to win, you want to be in a situation where you think a team can have success and or a team that can be close to turning it around and you think they can really make that push, and I think that's going to be one of my [main] motivations," he said.
The centre has averaged less than a point per game over the last five seasons, and has missed 42 games over the last three seasons. But the Montreal native put up solid numbers in 2013, with 10 goals and 22 assists in 39 games, and won an impressive 54.4 per cent of his faceoffs.
Lecavalier dealt with an ankle injury for about two months the past season, enduring pain for weeks after blocking a shot early in the season. Eventually, the ankle bone cracked and he was forced to take several games off.
"Before that and after that, I think I played some really good hockey, with confidence, and I was skating well," he said. "I believe I was bringing a lot to the team and I think healthwise [now] I feel great."
Lecavalier has scored 383 goals and 491 assists in 1,037 career regular season games, with 746 penalty minutes. He's racked up 60 game-winning goals, 112 power-play markers and 13 short-handed goals.
He was the Rocket Richard Trophy winner as the leading NHL goal scorer in 2006-07.
"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."
Lecavalier added 24 goals and 28 assists in 63 playoff games for Tampa Bay, who despite a Stanley Cup win in 2004 and an Eastern Conference final appearance in 2011, have never been able to establish a consistent playoff presence in recent seasons.
Under the terms of the new CBA, each NHL club was given the option to use up to two compliance buyouts prior to the end of the 2013-14 season in order to help teams get under a lower salary cap.
Lecavalier joins goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and forward Daniel Briere, both formerly of the Flyers, as the most notable players who have been bought out.
"After much internal deliberation, 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," the Lightning said in announcing the transaction. "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 bore no ill will with the team, adding with irony that it was Yzerman bearing the bad news, one of his favourite players while growing up.