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Inside The NHL

Lowly Tampa Bay isn't cavalier about developing Vincent

Another Lightning season is lost--Tampa Bay was 9-28-3 through
Sunday--and in this bleak environment the education of
18-year-old rookie center Vincent Lecavalier, the No. 1 pick in
last June's draft, will continue. Lecavalier has been compared
with Mario Lemieux by scouts and dubbed the Michael Jordan of
hockey by Lightning owner Art Williams. The future of the Tampa
Bay franchise rests on the narrow shoulders of the 6'4",
195-pound Lecavalier.

"The challenge is to help him along without putting him in a
position where he loses confidence," says Bruins general manager
Harry Sinden. "As anyone who has raised kids knows, the years
between 18 and 20 are a very developmental stage. That extends
to hockey."

Playing in the NHL, where savvy veterans often turn defensive
gaffes into goals, can prove dispiriting for even the most
talented young players. The Lightning has a history of stunting
the development of its rising talent. Four high first-round
draft picks, defenseman Roman Hamrlik (No. 1 in 1992), center
Chris Gratton (No. 3 in '93), wing Jason Wiemer (No. 8 in '94)
and center Daymond Langkow (No. 5 in '95), each were given
extensive NHL ice time before they could handle it. All were
overwhelmed, their confidence shaken and their development
impeded. Each has subsequently been traded by Tampa Bay
(although Gratton was reacquired last month).

Things may be different for Lecavalier. Lightning coach Jacques
Demers, who took over Tampa Bay in November 1997, has handled
his prize pupil with care. Through Sunday he had played
Lecavalier an average of 12:30 a game, 39th among rookies, and
hadn't used him against the opposition's top line. Demers also
has urged the Lightning front office to continue promoting and
marketing veterans, such as Darcy Tucker and Wendel Clark,
instead of training the spotlight on Lecavalier. "We know what
we have in Vinnie," says Demers. "He's too important to just
throw into the fire."

Despite being eased in, Lecavalier, who at week's end had seven
goals and four assists, has had a rough time defensively. Tampa
Bay's dismal record and usually somber locker room haven't made
his rookie season any easier. "It's been tough," says
Lecavalier. "I have to remind myself to stay positive, not let
mistakes happen twice."

For all his struggles Lecavalier has shown precocious ability
and considerable improvement. In a game last week against the
Maple Leafs he had a breakaway, but he shot low and was stoned
by goalie Curtis Joseph. Minutes later Lecavalier had another
scoring chance against Joseph, and this time he shot high and

"Lecavalier's going to be a very good player," says Panthers
president Bill Torrey. "The way the Lightning has played, the
temptation must be great for Jacques to make him the focal point
right now. But if you do that, you're taking a risk. There's a
lot at stake."

Scott Stevens

In two weeks Devils defenseman Scott Stevens will likely play in
the All-Star Game for the 10th time in his 17-year NHL career.
He has been New Jersey's captain for seven seasons and led the
Devils to the Stanley Cup in 1995. At the moment, though, he's a
difficult guy to respect.

According to several Sharks players, during a game last week
Stevens called San Jose enforcer Brantt Myhres a "drunk" and
told him to "have another beer." Just two months ago the
24-year-old Myhres completed six weeks of treatment for alcohol
dependency, his second rehab stint in a year. Stevens didn't
deny his verbal attack but downplayed it by saying it came "in
the heat of battle."

That's no excuse. Stevens's words were all the more appalling
given that his longtime teammate Ken Daneyko spent seven weeks in
an alcohol treatment center last season and recently counseled
Myhres on staying sober.

We can't endorse Myhres's vigilante plans--he says that when the
Devils and the Sharks play next week, he "hopes we get a lead,
so I can go after him"--but when Myhres says that Stevens is "an
idiot," we have to agree.

Flames Goaltenders

Calgary had surrendered 127 goals through Sunday--third worst in
the league--and if you wanted to point fingers at its
goaltending, you would have needed two hands. Six netminders
have started for the Flames this season, putting Calgary on pace
to smash the Nordiques' 1989-90 record of seven.

Ken Wregget started the Flames' first 11 games before going on
injured reserve with back spasms on Nov. 3. Then Tyler Moss, who
had six games of NHL experience, and rookie Jean-Sebastien
Giguere split time until Moss tore a groin muscle on Dec. 11.
Two weeks later Giguere pulled a hamstring, so Andrei Trefilov,
who had been acquired from the Blackhawks' minor league system,
stepped in. Trefilov played five games before straining a groin
muscle on Jan. 4, paving the way for 20-year-old rookie Tyrone
Garner, who had been in juniors. After Garner allowed 10 goals
in two games, the Flames, who at week's end had lost eight
straight and fallen into last place in the Northwest Division
with a 12-24-3 record, signed 26-year-old free agent Fred
Brathwaite, who had been playing with the Canadian national team.

Though he hadn't appeared in the NHL in three years, Brathwaite
started Calgary's game last Friday against the Stars and was
introduced as Jeff Brathwaite during pregame introductions. Then
he made 21 saves, and the Flames won 1-0, an outcome Calgary
winger Theo Fleury explained by saying, "Anything is possible."

COLOR PHOTO: DAN HAMILTON/VANTAGE POINT Despite some defensive lapses, Lecavalier, No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft, has been making progress. [Vincent Lecavalier and Garry Valk in game]




1998-99 salary: $900,000

Projected as a first- or second-line player this season, he had
three goals at week's end and was skating on the fourth line.
"I've lost confidence," he says.

1998-99 salary: $798,600

After starting the season on the fourth line, he had worked his
way up to the first line and led Vancouver with 21 goals.
"Confidence has a lot to do with it," he says.