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Often, it’s hard to remember that Vincent Lecavalier is just 26-years-old. After all, he has been the face of the Tampa Bay Lightning for eight years now, ever since he was chosen first overall by the struggling club back in 1998.

Eight years is a lifetime in the NHL. Sergei Samsonov was the NHL Rookie of the Year back in 1998. Now, he is a good, not great, player on his third team. Dominik Hasek was in the midst of his stranglehold of the Vezina while with Buffalo, but his first Stanley Cup and future stints in Ottawa and Detroit weren’t even on the radar. Rob Blake was winning the Norris Trophy in his first stint with Los Angeles back then.

Yet somehow Lecavalier has survived all the pressure heaped on him as a teen-ager, blindly navigating the road to superstardom and franchise icon status that Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby is now traveling.

Along the way, Lecavalier already has realized the dream held by all NHL players – hoisting the Stanley Cup. Lecavalier and the Lightning turned that trick back in 2004. Last week, he was also named as a reserve for the 2007 NHL All-Star Game to be held Thursday in Dallas. It is his second All-Star Game appearance, but the first in which he was selected. He was an injury replacement in the 2003 Game.

“It’s an honor and it tells you how you have done in the first half of the season," he said. "It’s my first time getting selected. Last time, I was replacing somebody. I was happy to go, but it wasn’t the same type of feel as being nominated by the NHL. It’s a great honor.”

And one that is well-deserved.

Because now -- despite the fact that he entered this season with 547 regular-season games and 39 playoff games under his belt -- the seasoned Lecavalier is just entering the prime of what has all the makings of a special career.

“I try to get better every year,” Lecavalier says. “They say 25 to 32, that’s your prime. I definitely feel stronger than when I was 21- or 20-years-old. I just try to learn every year.

“Like I said before, my biggest problem was consistency and that’s a tough thing to learn when you get into the League at 18. It’s not necessarily to play hard, because you always play hard in a game, but to be mentally ready every night. That was really a tough part of it, where we play every second or third day. But, as you get older, you work on that and it’s been going well so far.”

The fact that Lecavalier is finding the consistency that so often eluded him earlier in his career should scare the daylights out of the rest of the NHL.

With 29 goals already, he is tied for second in the League in that department, just one behind Anaheim’s Teemu Selanne. His 63 points are tied for fourth among scorers, a mere five points behind the aforementioned Crosby. With 33 games left in the 2006-07 season, Lecavalier needs just 16 points to surpass his career-high total of 78 back in 2002-03.

While Lecavalier’s emergence as a consistent force likely has kept opposing coaches up at night this year, it has left a smile on the face of his coach, the often hard to please John Tortorella.

“It was one of my four points I had with him at the beginning of the season -- to be the best more consistently and the (guy) has done it,” Tortorella says. “That's where I thought his next step of maturity would be, not to just play three great games and then lie in the weeds and be a pretty good player for four games; but rather to be a game-breaker for all seven. I have seen such a great maturity and such a great conscious try at that. That's why he is probably ... I think he is the best player in the League right now.”

Sure there are other players in that conversation. Some fans like Crosby for the honor. Others tab Calgary’s Jarome Iginla. Atlanta’s Marion Hossa and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin have been introduced into the debate. But there is no denying that Lecavalier is a emerging as a legitimate candidate for the honor.

As he enters his prime years, Lecavalier has found that his growth both physically and mentally has helped him to become a more complete and consistent player.

Martin St. Louis is Lecavalier’s linemate this year. He joined the Lightning in 2000 and has watched Lecavalier grow up before his eyes. This season, they are combining to be the most dangerous tandem in the NHL. Each has 29 goals. St. Louis has 64 assists, one more than Lecavalier.

St. Louis believes that Lecavalier’s improvement was bound to happen as he got older and learned all the little details that help make a young player a good pro.

“Two or three years ago, he was just 23 and that is still pretty young in this league,” St. Louis says. “He's matured as a player and I think he is really tough to play against every night. At a young age, you saw flashes of it and as he's growing older, you see it every night and it’s nice to see.

“His size is big for him, his toughness. He plays against the other big guys and doesn't back down from anyone. He has the quickness to jump the hole, and strength on the puck, taking the puck to the net.”

2007 All-Star Game Coverage

He has definitly improved throughout the years and his inconsistency isn't as bad as it was before. His pointless streak isn't 5 games anymore which helps Tampa out a lot they need his offensive ability.
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