Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman is learning it’s far more difficult to run the hockey operations of an NHL team than it is to put together an Olympic roster of superstars from the strongest hockey nation in the world or apprentice with the Detroit Red Wings.
When Yzerman fired Guy Boucher as Lightning coach Sunday morning, it was as much an indictment of the job he did in assembling the Tampa roster as it was how Boucher coached it. Perhaps even more. Yzerman admitted as much when he said, “It just isn’t working, I have to assume full responsibility for it.”
Three years after Yzerman took over the Lightning and almost two years after his team came within a goal of going to the Stanley Cup final, the bloom has most certainly come off the rose. The Lightning are known as one of the more underachieving teams in the NHL over the past two seasons and if that’s the case, then Boucher should have been fired. After all, it’s a coach’s responsibility to get the most out of the roster his GM gives him.
But what exactly did Yzerman give Boucher, aside from a couple of superstar offensive players that he had already inherited? Virtually every other aspect of the Lightning’s game - from goaltending to depth on defense to secondary scoring – has been far below the NHL standard. And that’s on the GM.
Aside from getting lucky on a gamble with 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson two years ago, Yzerman was never able to solve the Lightning’s goaltending woes. Mike Smith became one of the best goaltenders in the NHL after the Lightning put him on the scrap heap and, as it turns out, Anders Lindback was not ready to take the responsibility of being a No. 1 goalie. The Lightning defense corps, meanwhile, is slow and mistake-prone, and after all his years in Detroit, you’d think Yzerman would have placed more of an emphasis on building from the blueline out.
The Lightning are giving up 30 shots a game this season and their goaltending was completely unreliable, which is a bad combination. In fact, you can ask Randy Carlyle and Paul MacLean how good a coach can look when his goaltenders can actually stop the puck with some modicum of consistency. Much is being made of the Senators and their plucky run to the playoffs without their best players, but the difference between them being solidly ensconced in the post-season and the bottom of the Eastern Conference has been the remarkable play of all three of their goaltenders. As for the Leafs, the emergence of James Reimer has been key to their fortunes.
Actually, you could argue that the Leafs and Senators, who are giving up 31.9 and 33.2 shots per game, respectively, are even worse defensive teams than the Lightning. But if you’re going to go into a season with a guy who has only 38 starts on his NHL resume and a career backup, your defensive game is going to have to be much, much better than that. If you watched the goals the Lightning gave up in the last two games of Boucher’s tenure, all eight were either because of brutal defensive breakdowns or terrible goaltending. Something tells me that wasn’t quite the way Boucher drew things up. If you don’t have players who can execute, there isn’t much you can do to try to trap your opponents to death – which is what Boucher has been accused of doing – and just hope it works out. (And one of the problems that hasn’t been mentioned much is the fact the Lightning no longer have the ailing Wayne Fleming behind their bench as an assistant coach.)
So now Yzerman is the one under the gun to prove his mettle as a GM in the NHL. Unable to put together a winning roster, Yzerman now has no margin of error when it comes to hiring his next coach. If he goes with Jon Cooper, the man behind the bench for the Syracuse Crunch of the American League, he gets a proven winner with a track record of developing NHL-ready players for the parent club. He already knows the system and most of the players in it and is regarded as one of the most promising up-and-coming coaches in the game. Of course, so was Boucher before he was hired and now we all know how that turned out.
If Yzerman goes with Lindy Ruff or a coach with an established NHL history, there is no guarantee that he’ll be the panacea the Lightning are seeking. That’s because the reality is, the Lightning are not very good. Getting down 4-0 in Boucher’s last two games and looking like a team playing with absolutely no urgency made it seem as though the Lightning were playing to get their coach fired. And perhaps they were.
But the way this team has performed over the past two years, it’s impossible to tell. And until Yzerman does something to improve this roster – and either buying out or moving Vincent Lecavalier’s contract for nothing to open some cap space would be an excellent place to start – there’s probably not a coach in the world who’s going to be able to get positive results.
The Lightning already have $62 million devoted to salaries next season with virtually no impact free agents on the docket. Usually that’s a good thing. In this case, it’s not. It’s an indictment of the GM.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.