NEW YORK -- Vinny Lecavalier in a Panthers sweater? If the team has its way, that scenario — a nightmare for Tampa Bay fans — could come to light next season.
Lecavalier, the Lightning’s all-time leader in just about everything, was bought out by the team and is now a free agent. With the Panthers looking for veteran talent, team management said Lecavalier is a player in whom they are interested.
Both general manager Dale Tallon and assistant GM Mike Santos said Saturday that the Panthers’ full attention, right now, is on Sunday’s NHL Draft, but they are trying to engage in talks with Lecavalier and his representatives on Sunday before they leave New York.
Lecavalier, like all unrestricted free agents, can’t sign with another team until Friday.
“We’re very interested in his leadership, his skill level,” Tallon said after meeting with draft prospects at the team’s hotel near Times Square. “We have young, big centermen who could learn a lot from him.
“We have some interest; hopefully he has some as well. That’s the way it starts. It takes two to tango. If he doesn’t want to come, so be it. But I think there will be some open dialog there. That would be a benefit to our franchise.”
Lecavalier, who just finished his 14th season, has been the Lightning’s captain since 2000 and has 26 goals and 42 assists in 78 career games against the Panthers. Lecavalier had 10 goals and 22 assists in 39 games last season — with two goals and six points in four games against Florida.
“Even the thought of wearing a different kind of jersey is weird in my head,” Lecavalier told the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday.
Because of a reduced salary cap — and Lecavalier’s declining numbers — Tampa Bay decided to exercise its option to buy out the final seven years of the 11-year, $85 million deal Lecavalier signed with the team’s previous owners.
So, the Lightning will pay Lecavalier roughly $33 million over the next 14 years and not have that money count against the salary cap.
The Panthers are hoping the lack of a state income tax and South Florida’s proximity to Lecavalier’s Tampa charities might help sway Lecavalier in staying local.
“You have to have interest in Vinny Lecavalier,” Santos said. “It’s a little premature to see what his price will be in years and money. He’s a high character guy with great leadership skills. … Is he better than what we have at center right now? Probably.
“There are a lot of reasons for him wanting to stay in the state of Florida. Let’s face it, there are lots of tax advantages in Florida and the money Tampa is buying himself out with is considerable.”
Canada’s TSN reported that Lecavalier’s representatives met with Dallas, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Montreal, among others, on Saturday in New York.
• Jonathan Huberdeau received another honor Saturday as he was named to the NHL’s All-Rookie team for 2013. Huberdeau recently won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s top rookie.
Huberdeau had offseason surgery on his hip and is expected to resume skating in the coming weeks.
“He played hurt. That tells you a lot about this kid,” Tallon said. “He played hurt and extremely well. We didn’t have many players due to injuries, so teams focused on him. He’s a special kid.”
• Tallon said he spoke with Stephen Weiss’ agent Saturday in the continued hopes to sign the pending free agent center.
“You only get one shot at being a free agent, and we’re trying to do the best we can for both parties,” Tallon said. “If I can come up with the right number, well, that’s fine. We’ll go through [Sunday] and then make a decision next week.”
• Ed Jovanovski met with his surgeon Friday and told Tallon he is pain free for the first time in a long time. Jovanovski was limited to six games last season after having radical hip surgery in April.
Tallon said Jovanovski is expected to begin skating this week, although it’s not known whether the defenseman will be ready for training camp in September.