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Rift between Lightning co-owners raises Habs hope for Lecavalier

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman  speaks to reporters after the NHL board of governors meeting in Montreal, Wednesday June 24, 2009. The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes

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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters after the NHL board of governors meeting in Montreal, Wednesday June 24, 2009. The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL - With the NHL draft in Montreal, there's as much talk locally of Vincent Lecavalier as there is of whether John Tavares or Victor Hedman will be chosen first overall.

There's a feeling that the Montreal Canadiens will try to make a splash through a big trade at the draft and that may be a deal for Lecavalier, the big, first-line centre and bona fide French-Canadian star the team has lacked for years.

So, when a meeting of the league's board of governors ended Tuesday afternoon reporters flocked to Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Brian Lawton.

The Lightning not only hold the No. 2 pick in the draft behind the New York Islanders, but they're also reportedly looking to shop Lecavalier, with the star centre's home town of Montreal as a likely destination.

Neither Lawton nor the Canadiens gave any hint that a deal is in the works.

"I've talked a lot about Vincent and at this time it's all been said," was Lawton's only reply.

Perhaps, but Lecavalier's future appears to be at the heart of a dispute between Lightning co-owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie over who has final say on decisions about the team.

The two men met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday in a bid to resolve their differences, and a report from Tampa said it appeared that Koules came out on top.

Koules reportedly prefers to keep the team at the low end of the salary scale, in the low US$40-millions, which would favour trading Lecavalier before the US$85 million, 11-year contract that he signed this season kicks in on July 1.

Barrie is said to want a higher pay scale, which could mean keeping Lecavalier, the No. 1 pick from the 1998 draft who led the Lightning to a Stanley Cup in 2004.

Bettman gave no details of the meeting, but said the co-owners have resolved their differences - at least for now.

"They are actually speaking and they sat at the board meeting next to each other, so while there may have some issues long term that they'd like to resolve, things are stable and OK right now," said Bettman.

"I did have a meeting (Tuesday) with Oren Koules and Len Barrie and I think things are OK now. I think ultimately whatever's going on can be resolved."

Then there are the cool relations between Lawton and Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey, who tried to swing a deal for Lacavalier in January.

After the season, an angry Gainey accused Lawton of destabilizing his team by leaking the names of the players put forward in trade talks to the media, which the Lightning general manager denied but which certain members of the media say was true.

Lawton said it wouldn't affect future dealings between the teams, however.

"To be honest with you, we are both 100 per cent comfortable with what transpired in the past and our relationship going forward," he said. "I like Bob Gainey.

"He's a good man. I have no issue with him whatsoever and it's my understanding in conversations with him that he has no issues with myself."

The Canadiens are coming off a disappointing 100th anniversary season in which they were swept in the first round of playoffs by the Boston Bruins, after Gainey fired popular coach Guy Carbonneau and took over himself behind the bench.

Two weeks ago, he hired veteran Jacques Martin as head coach.

The team is also in the process of being sold by George Gillett, who bought them in 2001, to the Molson family, which has owned the team at various times in different capacities four times since the 1950s.

The board is expected to approve the sale, reportedly worth more than US$500 million, later in the summer.

"We were very gratified that there was a lot of interest in the Montreal Canadiens," said Bettman. "It is an iconic franchise.

"To the extent that we're dealing with a well-known family like the Molsons, we don't anticipate any surprises. This is a family not only with a long history in Montreal, but in hockey. But we do have our processes to go though and we go through the same processes with everyone."

Gillett made a brief address to the governors to open the meeting, but then left because he is suffering from pneumonia, said team president Pierre Boivin.

"It was a very positive reaction (to the sale)," said Boivin. "Very little was discussed, but there was very warm applause for George because he was very well liked and respected by his fellow owners."

Would be that all team sales were so smooth for Bettman, but the sticky issue of the Phoenix Coyotes lingers, and was one topic of discussion at the meetings, even if there was nothing new to report.

Prospective owners who agree to keep the team in Phoenix have until Aug. 5 to submit bids and, if no acceptable bids are entered, those looking to move the club to another city, including Research in Motion head Jim Balsillie, will have a chance.

A lawyer for Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf told a Phoenix court this week that he would submit a bid for the team to stay put by Friday.

Bettman said the bid hasn't yet been received but is expected on time.

He also said the salary cap has yet to be set for next season, but he expects it to be close to, or slightly below, this year's figure of about US$56 million.

He said the site of next year's draft has yet to be decided.

Meanwhile, the identity of the No. 1 pick in the draft remains a mystery.

It should come down to goal-scoring ace Tavares, stud defenceman Hedman or playmaking centre Matt Duchene.

Islanders general manager Garth Snow is widely expected to opt for Tavares, but wouldn't confirm that. Lawton said his pick will depend on who the Islanders choose.

Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said he's still looking to move up from his No. 7 position in the draft.

"We'd love to move up," Burke said. "We've identified the guy that if we move up high enough we'll get him.

"We've already tried to ring in all the possibilities of moving down as well, so that if we get to seven and there's a name we like ... we'll try to move down."

He said he had meetings planned with some teams Wednesday night and will keep trying up to the draft.

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