In eight seasons at the helm of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Steve Yzerman has constructed a team that has won one Eastern Conference championship, appeared in three conference finals, become a perennial Stanley Cup contender and compiled a roster so chock-full of talent it alone could comprise the entire annual divisional all-star team. Yet, on the eve of 2018-19 NHL training camp and with the Lightning projected to again challenge for the Stanley Cup, Yzerman has reportedly made the stunning decision to step down from his post.
According to multiple reports, Yzerman told Tampa Bay’s players Tuesday that he is ceding his role as GM and will become a senior advisor with the organization. The move comes as Yzerman prepares to enter the final season of a four-year contract extension he signed with Tampa Bay in April 2014. It was reported by TSN’s Bob McKenzie that Yzerman is expected to remain with the Lightning throughout this season. Longtime assistant GM Julien BriseBois, who has been with the franchise since Yzerman began his tenure and has long overseen the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, will take over the GM chair.
As shocking as Yzerman’s departure from the job is, though, it hardly spells doom and gloom for the Lightning. Consider the state in which the team is in and the circumstances under which Yzerman is giving the keys to BriseBois. Last season, Tampa Bay finished atop the Eastern Conference with an outstanding 54-23-5 record, finished five points shy of capturing the Presidents’ Trophy and came within one victory of another trip to the Stanley Cup final, their run culminating with a Game 7 loss to the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Washington Capitals.
Better yet, though, Yzerman is passing the torch to BriseBois with very little to be done in the ways of maintenance to the roster. As noted, Yzerman and Co. have assembled a lineup that is as complete as any in the NHL. And it’s almost as if Yzerman’s diligence on hammering out an eight-year, $76-million extension with superstar winger Nikita Kucherov has now become his parting gift of sorts. Yzerman has also taken care of contract considerations for Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, giving BriseBois a rock-solid foundation on which he can continue building.
None of that, however, is to say BriseBois can kick back, put his feet up and watch the wins roll in. It won’t be long before he’s tasked with making some of the toughest decisions the Lightning have faced.
Current projections for the 2019-20 campaign give Tampa Bay less than $14 million in cap space — this is before any potential increase in the spending limit, mind you — and BriseBois’ first order of business will be to navigate some difficult contract negotiations. On the docket as pending unrestricted free agents, in order of importance, are Anton Stralman, Yanni Gourde, Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn. BriseBois will also need to fit a sure-to-be sizeable extension for restricted free agent Brayden Point under the cap, as well as address the RFA situations of Cedric Paquette, Adam Erne, Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin. BriseBois will also face long-term considerations for goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, both of whom can sign extensions as early as next summer.
Fortunately for the Lightning, BriseBois has long been considered one of the frontrunners for vacant team-building gigs throughout the NHL, and there was speculation that he would be among the next assistant GMs to transition into a top job. Of course, Yzerman stepping down has resulted in those rumors coming to fruition, though it’s not in the way most would have expected.
And it would be foolish to assume that BriseBois is incapable of replacing Yzerman. His name doesn’t carry the same cachet, to be sure, but the Crunch have been ultra-competitive under BriseBois’ watch, finishing in the top two in their division in four of the past six seasons and playing their way to the Calder Cup final on two occasions. It should go without saying, too, that Yzerman wasn’t alone in running the front office. BriseBois will have much of the same support staff, and he’s undoubtedly been in on the conversations that have shaped the organization to this point, even if it is Yzerman who has received the lion’s share of the praise.
As for what’s next for Yzerman, the speculation has already begun to run rampant. The Athletic’s Joe Smith and Detroit Free Press’ Helene St. James reported Yzerman has informed players that he’ll be heading to his home in Detroit, which has inevitably lent itself to talk of Yzerman rejoining the Red Wings. Formerly the vice-president of hockey operations in Detroit post-playing career and prior to his time in Tampa Bay, could ‘Stevie Y’ replace longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland? It’s no doubt a possibility, but there’s also a chance that Yzerman, who has spent the past 35 years in the NHL as either a player or front-office member, wants to step away from the game for a while. There’s truly no knowing what the next step is for him at this point.
Regardless of what’s next for Yzerman, though, he has left the Lightning and BriseBois in position to succeed well into the future and possibly even capture the franchise’s second Stanley Cup, and quite frankly, we shouldn’t expect anything less.