Upon becoming GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010, Steve Yzerman said he knew there was no magic wand for making the team competitive. Four seasons later, there’s still no wand, but he’s followed a familiar formula to put the team in a position to win.
When Steve Yzerman took the reins as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, he said there would be no easy fixes and that creating a perennial contender was the long-term goal. Yzerman wasn’t thinking Stanley Cup. No, he was thinking Stanley Cups – plural.
It’s not surprising that was, and is, how Yzerman looked at things, especially considering where he was coming from. A career Detroit Red Wing, Yzerman was part of the process of turning the Red Wings from basement team to perennial Stanley Cup contender during his playing days.
Yzerman’s plan in Tampa Bay is very similar to that which he was a part of and learned about as a player and post-career as the Red Wings vice president. The Lightning, like the Red Wings of his day, are built with strong drafting to cement the cornerstones and trades or free agency to fill any holes.
Look no further than the Red Wings back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1996-97 and 1997-98 to see the type of roster Yzerman has attempted to manufacture. The draftees on those rosters included Sergei Fedorov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Martin Lapointe, Darren McCarty, Joey Kocur, Mathieu Dandenault, Tomas Holmstrom, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Yzerman. Those names would all become synonymous with Red Wings hockey and, with some Russian kid named Pavel Datsyuk added to the mix, many would help lead the Wings to glory again in 2001-02.
The idea of homegrown talent obviously did not go lost on Yzerman. Though he may not have been in Tampa Bay for two of the biggest pieces of the Lightning puzzle, there’s little doubt he would have selected Steven Stamkos first overall in the 2008 draft and Victor Hedman second the following year. They were slam-dunk picks that any GM in the league would have made.
It’s what Yzerman has done with the help of a talented scouting department to build around these corner stones that stands out most. His first draft as Lightning GM, Tampa Bay selected current day roster players Brett Connolly and Radko Gudas. The next year, Vladimir Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat were brought into the fold. Cedric Paquette in 2012 and Jonathan Drouin in 2013 followed that up. Nearly a third of the present roster in four drafts is quite the feat.
Part of having young talent, though, is allowing them to play and Yzerman hasn’t been shy about giving these young players the chance to grow and mature. Sure, the team has taken some lumps because of it, but that comes with the territory. Without those lumps who knows if some of the roster would be quite as NHL ready or if Tampa would have been in a position come draft day to select them at all.
Beyond the youngsters, Yzerman has shown a penchant for landing the right free agents to supplement his roster. While winger Ryan Callahan’s contract may be a head-scratcher at times, it’s the only one on a roster that also includes savvy free agent signings in center Brian Boyle and defenseman Anton Stralman.
Even when it comes to signing undrafted free agents, Yzerman has shown a knack. Each of Tyler Johnson, J.T. Brown, and Andrej Sustr came to the Lightning as undrafted free agents, and they have all made their own impact. Brown and Sustr are steady defensively and relied on for depth minutes, while Johnson has turned into a possession monster and a perfect second line center.
The Lightning had to look elsewhere for goaltending. Ben Bishop, acquired from the Ottawa Senators for a song, has been a rock for the Lightning and solved their woes in goal. Lying in wait are goaltending prospects Andrei Vasilevskiy and Kristers Gudlevskis, and it looks as though they will be ready in the future for Tampa Bay. In a couple seasons, it may not be tough to draw comparisons to the 1996-97 Red Wings tandem of Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood.
This season, more than four years after Yzerman departed, the Red Wings iced a lineup that included only two players who had played elsewhere in their professional careers. It was a testament to an incredible system, one that was established in Detroit in the late-90s. It wouldn’t be all too surprising if Tampa Bay accomplishes the same thing soon.
Like he said on the day he arrived, he couldn’t just wave a magic wand and put the team in the position to win. But this season, Yzerman’s got himself a contract extension and a Stanley Cup contender that doesn’t look like it’ll stop soon. What makes it more special is that he built it the only way he has ever known – by modeling his team after those same Red Wings he was a part of for so very long.