Stu Cowan: Canadiens’ Lecavalier details the pressure of being a top pick

The special operations advisor understands all the ups and downs that can come from being the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft.

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Vincent Lecavalier understands the pressure of being the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft.

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The Tampa Bay Lightning selected Lecavalier with the No. 1 pick in 1998 after posting totals of 44-71-115 in 58 games with Rimouski Océanic during the 2017-18 QMJHL season. Lecavalier was the highest-rated prospect before the draft and the Lightning was by far the worst team in the NHL the previous season, going 17-55-10.

Art Williams, owner of the Lightning at the time, immediately put additional pressure on Lecavalier after the draft by saying he would become the “Michael Jordan of hockey” and could lead his last-place team to a Stanley Cup championship in the future.

Lecavalier never became the Michael Jordan of hockey, but he played 17 seasons in the NHL, including 14 with Tampa, and helped the Lightning win the Stanley Cup in 2004, six years after he was drafted.

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Lecavalier is a special hockey operations adviser with the Canadiens, who have the No. 1 pick for this year’s NHL Draft on Thursday night at the Bell Center.

During a news conference with general manager Kent Hughes on Monday, Lecavalier discussed the pressure of being the No. 1 pick.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “You have pressure every night. You’re 17 years old (last junior season), you’re not 25 or 30 years old with 10 years of NHL experience. You are 17 years old. I remember my last season (at Rimouski) there were a lot of mental ups and downs. Everyone is talking to you about it. You can’t get out of it. It went right. I handled it well and I think (Shane Wright) has done the same as well.”

Wright, a center, is one of three players Hughes said the Canadiens are considering taking with the first pick, along with left wing Juraj Slafkovsky and center Logan Cooley. Lecavalier recently called Wright and said he, too, planned to talk to Slafkovsky and Cooley before the draft.

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“It’s about projection and thinking about how good they will be and not necessarily in 2023, but how they will be in three, four or five years,” Lecavalier said. “You have to watch a lot of games and communicate with the team and have conversations. They are certainly three different players, but they are three very good players”.

Lecavalier said he had a good conversation with Wright, noting that the 18-year-old has been in the spotlight as a possible No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft since entering the OHL as a 15-year-old with the Kingston Frontenacs. after earning exceptional player status and posted 39-27-66 overall in 58 games. In 63 games this season, Wright went 32-62-94.

The only other players in OHL history to receive exceptional player status to enter the league a year earlier were John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid and Sean Day. The only one who hasn’t had a successful NHL career is Day, a defenseman whose stock had dropped prior to his draft year in 2016 when the New York Rangers selected him in the third round (81st overall).

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Lecavalier was impressed with how Wright has been able to handle the brilliant spotlight thus far, describing him as a good person who sets high standards for himself.

In Montreal, the focus will be on whoever the Canadiens take with the first pick. Lecavalier credited Jacques Demers, his first coach in Tampa, for tempering initial expectations after the Michael Jordan comparison and not pushing him further. Demers started Lecavalier in the back row with a couple of veteran wingers to help him develop. In his rookie season, Lecavalier posted 13-15-28 overall while playing in all 82 games.

Lecavalier’s best individual season was in 2006-07, when he went 52-56-108 overall in 82 games and won the Maurice Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top scorer.

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In his new position, Lecavalier could play a key role in developing whoever the Canadiens take with the No. 1 pick, even if it’s just about having someone to talk to who can relate to the pressure and the ups and downs to come.

What is the best advice Lecavalier has for whoever is the first pick?

“It’s something that I said (to Wright) or would say to anybody in the draft,” Lecavalier said. “It doesn’t matter where you get drafted. As soon as the draft is over, it doesn’t matter if you’re 1st or 200th. Everyone’s goal now is to make it to the NHL. I would say probably being a first round player you might have a quicker chance. But basically forget about the draft and move on and now it’s like you’re part of this team and your only goal is to make that team as fast as possible or when the time comes and be a part of it.

“So my advice is to enjoy the day, but then you have to get down to business and do everything you can to make your dream come true.”

Lecavalier was able to do that.

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