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LECAVALIER A PANTHER? Florida Wants to Look Into Adding Former Lightning Captain

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

NEW YORK -- Vinny Lecavalier in a Panthers sweater?

If the team has its way, that scenario -- a nightmare for Tampa Bay fans -- could happen 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 they are interested in.

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.

After that, however, the team will look into Lecavalier's interest in staying in Florida -- only a few hours southeast of his beloved Tampa Bay.

Lecavalier, like all unrestricted free agents, can't sign with another team until July 5.

"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 games against the Panthers. Lecavalier had 10 goals and 22 assists in 39 games last year -- 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 lowered 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.

A tireless philanthropist in the Tampa Bay area, the Panthers are hoping the lack of a state income tax and South Florida's proximity to his Tampa charities may help sway Lecavalier in staying local. Lecavalier was reportedly meeting with Dallas on Saturday.

"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. Lets face it, there are lots of tax advantages in Florida and the money Tampa is buying himself out with is considerable.''

PHOTO: Al Diaz, AP

LECAVALIER A PANTHER? Florida Wants to Look Into Adding Former Lightning Captain