HERE'S LOOKING AT YOU, KID

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Art Williams is the first to admit his limitations, one of which isn't money.

When he said Vincent Lecavalier was going to be "the Michael Jordan of hockey," he wasn't slighting Wayne Gretzky or Maurice Richard or Gordie Howe or anyone else in the Hall of Fame.

"I didn't know hockey," says Williams, who was completing a $118-million deal to buy the Ice Palace and its chief tenant, the Lightning, when it made Lecavalier [luh-KAV-uhl-YAY] the No. 1 pick in the NHL entry draft in June.

"I'm a football coach and I knew a little bit about basketball, so I didn't know who Gretzky was," Williams says. "The press has a good time with me. I talk about the field and teeing it up and quarters. I haven't gotten the terminology yet."

Sure he has. Contract, bonus, incentive clause, all those terms have become a part of his hockey vocabulary since Lecavalier, an 18-year-old center, was signed to what could be the most lucrative deal for a rookie in NHL history.

It includes the base salary ($975,000 a year for three years) that is the rookie limit in the league's collective bargaining agreement.

And there is a $3-million bonus for reaching any two of six incentives:

* Score at least 20 goals.

* Have at least 35 assists.

* Record at least 60 points.

* Average at least 0.73 points a game in a minimum of 42 games.

* Finish with a plus-minus rating of plus-10, if Tampa Bay makes the playoffs or be among the top three forwards on the team in plus-minus if the Lightning misses the playoffs.

* Finish fifth or better in voting for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie.

Bonuses for making the all-star team, all-rookie team, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, winning the Stanley Cup and being among the team leaders in power-play and short-handed goals could bring the total to $16 million over three seasons, though the Lightning has hedged its bet for the first season by buying an insurance policy on the bonuses.

"If you're going to be in this business, you've got to stick your neck out," says Williams, who lives in a black-and-white world and hands out T-shirts that read: "You can be a stud or a dud."

"He's a stud," Williams adds. "I expect him to be the Michael Jordan of the NHL. He's going to be a superstar and he's going to be our franchise player."

He's a rangy 6-foot-4, 190-pound kid who isn't going to be 19 until April 21. Some filling out is going to be necessary before he can put the Lightning on his back. Some growing up too.

"I think he was just really excited about getting me No. 1," Lecavalier says of the man who signs his checks. "I think it was good pressure. It wasn't anything to hurt me. I don't think that's pressure. I just play hockey. I don't bother with that."

Of more immediate concern are his digs, and his ride. His folks just left Tampa to return to Ile Bizard, a suburb of Montreal, and he is alone in his two-bedroom apartment here. Before he left, Yvon Lecavalier made sure Vincent's transportation wasn't ostentatious.

His son didn't need that Porsche he coveted.

He got a BMW convertible, same as every other 18-year-old.

"We told him to start easy and each year give him some objectives: 'Earn some bonuses and get your Porsche,' " says Yvon, a firefighter. "Parking in front of somebody with a Porsche, you would lose their respect. I think that's a good thing to get the respect of the players, you know. And the fans also."

The easiest way to get the respect of both is to earn enough bonuses to buy that Porsche. But Lecavalier's first five games were strictly used Ford Pinto material, with no points and the ignominy of being benched briefly and demoted from the second to the fourth line.

"That's part of hockey," says Lecavalier. "I had one bad game and didn't play in the third period. I didn't deserve to play. I think I was playing good the first five games, and then I wasn't intense and I deserved to be on the bench."

Said Coach Jacques Demers: "I don't look at him as an 18-year-old kid, but I still have to think that when I'm coaching him. . . . This week he acted 18, but that's OK. New home. BMW. . . .

"When I brought him in my office, I told him, 'This is why I benched you. You didn't play. You didn't show up. Not because you make mistakes.' I won't bench him for making mistakes. I will bench him for not showing up.

"I also understood why, all the distraction he had, but I wasn't going to let him get away with it."

Lesson apparently learned. Against Pittsburgh, fourth-line center Lecavalier got 1/35th of the assist total in his bonus arrangement when he fed Darcy Tucker for a goal.

On Sunday against Vancouver, he went 1/20th of the way to the goal standard with his low screamer past Garth Snow.

Welcome back to the second line for tonight's game against the Mighty Ducks at the Pond of Anaheim.

"I talked to him and said, 'We started here [holding his hand at eye level], and now we've moved back here [to the waist] and we've got to work our way back here," says winger-enforcer Sandy McCarthy, who also made the move down, in part because some of his job is to take any attack on Lecavalier personally.

"It's a long season and the only way it's going to get better is if we make it better. So you have to take it on yourself to get better every day. He handled it tremendously."

McCarthy was like many of the Lightning, taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the teenager who was supposed to be the savior. He waited, and he saw and he likes what he has seen.

"I think he's got his head on his shoulders real fine," said McCarthy, who took on the Kings' Sean O'Donnell when he went after Lecavalier in front of the net Friday night.

"He's one of the best kids you'll see. He has an arrogance about him, but he's down to earth when you talk to him. Everyone knows he's good, but he's a real level-headed kid to have been given so much at such a young age. He's got great talent."

That talent is why he is in the NHL, after two seasons in junior hockey. (He had 44 goals and 71 assists in 58 games last season for Rimouski of Quebec Major Hockey League.)

It emerged during training camp, when Demers and the rest of the Lightning saw who scouts had been saying was the best amateur player to come into the draft in years.

They saw enough for Demers, who recently added the title of general manager to his resume after Williams fired Phil Esposito, to have an unusual conversation with Yvon and Christiane Lecavalier before the season. Basically it was a recruiting pitch.

"I told his parents I was going to make a commitment to him," Demers says.

"First of all, there were rumors that he's going to be traded [to Colorado]. I told his parents, 'He's not going to be traded.'

"Two, I told him I would give him every opportunity to play. They said if he was going to get two-three minutes a game, he'd be better off going back to juniors. I told them that wouldn't happen.

"When he signed his contract, I told him to forget about the 10-day part. You have 10 days to go back to juniors. I told him to forget it. He's staying.

"And he would have the opportunity to be himself on the ice and he's done that."

Lecavalier has averaged about 15 minutes a game on the ice and is part of the second power-play unit.

"I try to not put pressure on myself," says Lecavalier. "I try to play my game. What's my game? I don't know. This year I've got to prove I can play defense. It wasn't that big a deal last year, but it is this year because in the NHL you've got to be able to play good defense."

But the Lightning didn't make him the top pick in the draft to check people. It wants goals and assists and plenty of them.

And soon.

"That first assist [against the Penguins] was a relief," he says. "After that I felt a lot better. It did a lot for my confidence. . . .

"I don't want to set goals. I'm young and I want to just be consistent every game. I don't think there's age in hockey. You're old, you're young. There's guys who are 18, there's guys who are 35 and you make your spot on the team and you've got a role to play."

His role was spelled out minutes after he was drafted.

"Art Williams can say what he wants," Demers says. "It's his team. He owns it."

And it has hockey's Michael Jordan. Just ask Williams.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

First and Foremost

Five most recent NHL first-round picks before Vincent Lecavalier:

YEAR: 1997

PLAYER: Joe Thornton

POS.: C

JR. TEAM: Sault Ste. Marie

DRAFTING TEAM: Boston

Plays sparingly with the Bruins. Had three goals and seven points in 55 games last season; has one goal in eight games this season.

*

YEAR: 1996

PLAYER: Chris Phillips

POS.: Def.

JR. TEAM: Prince Albert

DRAFTING TEAM: Ottawa

Solid rookie season last year with five goals and 16 points in 72 games. Considered cornerstone of Senators' defense, with Wade Redden.

*

YEAR: 1995

PLAYER: Bryan Berard

POS.: Def.

JR. TEAM: Jr. Red Wings

DRAFTING TEAM: Ottawa

Refused to play for Senators, leading to trade to New York Islanders in January 1996. A gifted skater and offensive player, he was a member of the U.S. Olympic team at Nagano.

*

YEAR: 1994

PLAYER: Ed Jovanovski

POS.: Def.

JR. TEAM: Windsor

DRAFTING TEAM: Florida

A ferocious hitter, he was on the NHL's all-rookie team in 1996, the season the Panthers went to the Stanley Cup finals. He since has lost his assurance and has been the subject of periodic trade rumors.

*

YEAR: 1993

PLAYER: Alexandre Daigle

POS.: C

JR. TEAM: Victoriaville

DRAFTING TEAM: Ottawa

Projected as a franchise player, he lacks the work ethic to match his speed. He had 20 goals and 51 points as a rookie in 1993-94 and had 26 goals and 51 points in 1995-96, but was traded to Philadelphia last January. He's considered a disappointment there too.

Great Expectations

A look at how three rookies who entered pro hockey with a considerable amount of notoriety did in their first season:

*--*

Player, Year G A PTS +/- Wayne Gretzky, 1978-79* 46 64 110 NA Mario Lemieux, 1984-85 Pittsburgh 43 57 100 -35 Eric Lindros, 1992-93 Philadelphia 41 34 75 28

*--*

*-Gretzkypent his rookie season with Indianapolis and Edmonton of the WHA. Edmonton joined the NHL in 1979-80, and Gretzky had 51 goals, 86 assists and 137 points.

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