If I was new to NHL fandom and was picking a team to follow, it’d be Tampa Bay.
The present looks pretty good with Steven Stamkos, Martin St-Louis, Victor Hedman, Vincent Lecavalier and Simon Gagne. Plus there’s finally some depth in goal and a blueline that is looking better. And so does the future with interesting prospects in Brett Connolly, Richard Panik, Carter Ashton and Dana Tyrell up front; big Brock Beukeboom on the back end; and Dustin Tokarski and Cedrick Desjardins in goal.
But it’s the off-ice moves that would have me really jazzed. Owner Jeff Vinik is beginning his first full season at the helm; he’s a Boston hedge-fund guy with enough Benjamins to keep the team afloat and relieve the “win now” pressure that is so overwhelming in so many NHL locales.
On the business side of things, Vinik wooed Tod Leiweke to be the CEO. He’s got a wealth of experience – and success – running operations in the NFL, NBA and MLS. Then Vinik lured Steve Yzerman from Detroit. The most sought-after budding GM in hockey, Yzerman brought instant respectability to the hockey operations department.
Yzerman brought in a number of top-notch people to be his lieutenants – Julien BriseBois from the Canadiens organization is the new assistant GM, Pat Verbeek is now head of pro scouting, Al Murray from Hockey Canada will run the amateur scouting and the up-and-coming Guy Boucher is the new coach.
“It’s an exciting time and everyone is feeding off that,” BriseBois said. “Everyone is coming in with new ideas, everyone is stepping up to improve things.”
One can only imagine how different the atmosphere is around the St. Pete Times Forum this August from the past few. Former owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie didn’t have the cake or the cache to run a successful pro sports franchise and their seemingly constant meddling in the hockey operations only further put the team behind the eight-ball.
With all the new faces on the roster and in the front office, Boucher wanted to hit the ice skating and brought his coaching staff with him from the American League’s Hamilton Bulldogs. Martin Raymond is someone Boucher has known for 12 years and Boucher was impressed with Dan Lacroix’s work last season as the two clicked.
“I felt those two guys could help me transmit my vision and the way I like to do and see things,” Boucher said.
To counterbalance all the youth, veteran coach Wayne Fleming was brought in as a third assistant to offer some sage advice and help navigate the treacherous NHL waters.
“He’s a very open-minded guy and he’s seen a lot,” Boucher said. “Pat (Quinn) talked highly of Wayne and I felt real comfortable with him, too. So I was really happy about the guys on staff.”
Boucher is somewhat of an enigma considering his rapid rise to the NHL; he got his first head-coaching job just four years ago in the Quebec League. But he’s had some pretty heady influences along the way: Quinn, Jean Pronovost in Rouyn-Noranda, Jacques Lemaire, Mike Babcock and everyone involved with Hockey Canada (Boucher’s been to the under-18s three times and the world juniors once).
“That’s probably the reason why things were accelerated,” Boucher said of his mentors and landing his first NHL gig. “They’ve seemed accelerated to me.”
It’s Boucher who will have the most noticeable impact of the new hires in the short term, so there will be some pressure for him – and by extension his players – to perform. But Yzerman has preached patience despite the ever-better roster he’s cobbled together so far. And that mantra has filtered down through the organization.
“It’s going to be a process and one of the big pieces was getting the right coach,” BriseBois said of Boucher. “His personality, his approach, his smarts; he’s really smart. He’s a really good X’s-and-O’s guy…he brings so many tools to the table. He’s the total package.”
It looks to me like the entire Tampa staff is fast becoming the total package. And for that reason alone I’d say optimism reigns in Lightning Land. Couple that with the roster Yzerman et al are putting together and the playoffs – now and in the future – are more than just a possibility.
One-on-one with Steven Stamkos
REPORTER: Ryan Kennedy | PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
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