With Koules in charge, the Save Vinny campaign gains steam

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None of the parties are willing to go on the record, but every indication is that Gary Bettman has maintained the status quo for the Tampa Bay Lightning during yesterday's couples therapy with Oren Koules and Len Barrie. What that means for the Bolts, from Damian Cristodero of Lightning Strikes:

Indications are that the hierarchy remains the same with Koules as CEO and governor and Brian Lawton as general manager and the point man when it comes to hockey operations. The belief is that both Koules and Barrie have to sign off on major player moves brought to them by Lawton, which is how it has been.

That means if a potential trade for captain Lecavalier is discussed, it would need the approval of both owners and Barrie has made it clear he wants Lecavalier in the franchise, calling him a "generational" player.   

Koules, meanwhile, has been characterized as the guy who wants to trade Vincent Lecavalier and his elephantine "lifetime" contract (11-year, $85 million contract extension goes into effect when free agency begins July 1) as a cost-saving measure. Now, his claim to the Globe & Mail that "neither owner desires to deal Lecavalier" could be a rebuttal against that characterization or simply missing a caveat like "unless we're financially forced to do so."

Regardless, the ownership squabble comes right as the NHL Draft arrives this week ... in Montreal, a city that covets Lecavalier as a franchise player for the Canadiens to the point where he was treated like a conquering hero at January's All-Star Weekend. It also comes as Lecavalier's contract inches closer to the no-trade clause trigger at the start of July.

For Tampa Bay fans, the battle lines are being drawn. Koules or Barrie? Trade Vinny or keep Vinny? For Montreal Canadiens fans, the questions are more complex: What would you sacrifice for a superstar healing up from injuries? Is Lecavalier worth the price tag in personnel or dollars?

Pierre Lebrun of ESPN reports that GM Brian Lawton is still in charge of hockey decisions, and has indicated publicly that he doesn't want to trade Lecavalier. Yet he's also a Koules loyalist, so who knows what results in the end?

The end could be in Montreal, which has a war chest of available cap space and the desire to have a Quebec-born megastar at center (sorry ... centre). Lawton isn't exactly on Montreal GM Bob Gainey's holiday mailing list, according to Arpon Basu of Daily Hab-it. He writes:

Gainey also made it clear that dealing with Lawton is not exactly his cup of tea, and with Lawton either working on his own or getting his direction from Tweedledum and Tweedledee, that working relationship isn't likely to improve anytime soon.

The only conceivable reason I can see for Gainey being this patient with this situation is that he must believe there's a robbery to be had here, especially if that now mythic offer of Christopher Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, Josh Gorges and P.K. Subban was anywhere close to being enough to grab Lecavalier.

If Gainey didn't think he could pull off a Joe Thorntonesque heist here, does anyone think he would have the patience to wait on these fools to get their own house in order? The question now is whether or not that patience will last to July 1. In my eyes, if this deal is not done by Friday night, it's not going to get done.

Again, the marriage counseling from Bettman would appear to come at a time when the Lightning are either going to surrender to the financial constraints of the Lecavalier contract or formally commit to him as a franchise cornerstone.

Sensing that, fans and bloggers are chiming in. Joe Bolts Fan believes a Vinny trade is pretty much inevitable. Raw Charge believes that if Koules is in control that "Friday night turns into a fire sale." Martin Fennelly of the Tampa Tribune doesn't have a shred of faith that the Bolts can get back what Lecavalier is worth.

One voice in the backlash really stands out: Lightning founder Phil Esposito, who offered strong words of support for Vinny as a Bolt --

"I wanted Vinny to be our Stevie Yzerman, a top guy who would remain with the organization his entire career," said Esposito, who serves as the Lightning's radio analyst for home broadcasts. "You treat a player like that with loyalty and respect because you know all the other players are watching. It's not Vinny's fault that they're overpaying him. Vinny has kept his mouth shut through all this turmoil."


"If they deal Vinny, it's strictly money, period," Esposito said. "It can't be spun any other way. If you think you're making your team better, fine, but don't trade Vinny for money. I've been there. It's the wrong thing to do. Besides, if the Lightning get three players for him and they turn out to be decent, in two years you'll be paying them more then you're paying Vinny. It makes no sense."

But the tide that's turned against Koules is something Jon Jordan of Hockeybuzz, a solid observer of the Lightning, doesn't necessarily agree with. From Jordan:

Personally, I can't say anything bad about Barrie, though I have only spoken to him twice. He was rarely present at home games this season but that's not much of a knock at all, really, given his various business interests elsewhere. There are others, however, in NHL circles, who aren't exactly huge fans.

As for Koules, who I've gotten to know just a little bit over the past year or so, I don't get why anyone would automatically align themselves with option B just because he's been in charge of the day-to-day since taking over. Clearly, there have been mistakes. No one can deny as much. But Koules has been present, visible and accountable since day one, as promised, right or wrong. That takes guts and demands respect, if nothing else. If he happens to be the driving force behind a desire to trade Lecavalier, so be it. That requires some serious grapefruits right there (but you better get that one right, Oren.) Still, whatever is happening behind the scenes right now is far beyond Vincent Lecavalier.

Indeed. The details floating around about the managerial strife can be correctly called salacious. You get the sense that this isn't just a relationship that can't be mended, but an environment in Tampa that needs to be drained of some poison.

But that's all scuttlebutt. From a hockey perspective, one thing is clear: The current Lightning regime has done nothing to make one confident that a Lecavalier trade will yield a fortunes-altering bounty.

Should Vinny go, it's either the continuation of the trend or the start of Oren Koules's redemption as an NHL owner.

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