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Checking in on Hockey Bay: Q&A with Raw Charge

When Steve Yzerman announced he was leaving Detroit late this spring to take over the reigns as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, it came as a quick surprise to most Red Wings fans followed by each of the five stages of dealing with hockey's greatest captain leaving the folds of the family he'd helped turn into a powerhouse in order to strike out on his own and make a new name for himself as a shrewd and powerful hockey mind.  Of course, the Red Wings and Ken Holland didn't let us grieve for too long, waiting only a week after Yzerman's departure to ink captain Nicklas Lidstrom to another one year deal, cementing Detroit's status as a contender once more for the upcoming season. 

With Wings fans temporarily placated that we weren't going to lose two captains in the span of a week, we could turn our attentions to Tampa Bay and take another look at where our future team president and GM would be cutting his teeth as an every day GM after studying under the best minds in the business for the greater part of his 27 years with the Red Wings and after getting his feet wet putting together the 2007 IIHF World Champion Canadian squad as well as the 2010 Olympic Gold Medal-winning Canadian team. Yzerman's hiring to Tampa Bay by new owner Jeff Vinik, who said all the right things about wanting to fix the mistakes of the old regime and rebuild a franchise the right way struck a few chords with many Wings fans, who near-instantly adopted the Lightning as their de facto Eastern Conference favorite.  I'll happily maintain that a Detroit/Tampa Bay cup finals series would be absolutely ideal.

With that in mind, I wanted to see how Yzerman is doing since the season started and check up on the Lightning.  For that, I reached out to SB Nation's resident Lightning blog Raw Charge and found writers John Fontana and Meredith Qualls were kind enough to answer a few questions about the state of Hockey Bay and what kind of excitement Yzerman has helped bring back to the 2003-04 Cup-winning city.  Join us below the jump for the Q&A.  

How has Yzerman done so far in the few months he's been the team's General Manager? What's the biggest change in the makeup of the team that's evident to the fans?

Yzerman has done an excellent job as GM. Organizationally, there is a new level of professionalism and legitimacy to the team. As far as fans go, hiring Guy Boucher and keeping the fan's favorite players on board (for example,  re-signing St. Louis) made him immediately likable.

What is the biggest change? The team is competing consistently and there is production coming from more than one single offensive line combo. There’s also the fact coaching (Guy Boucher and assistants) and the front (Yzerman) are on the same page and have built the team together. That didn’t exist last season when former GM Brian Lawton built a team ill-suited for Rick Tocchet’s coaching style.

Was Yzerman's arrival a shot to the fans? Has there been a noticeable increase in "buzz" around the team since a well-known name joined or is Yzerman's Q-rating in non-traditional markets so much lower than Gretzky's as to make no discernible difference other than being a new face?

To be honest, the buzz is less about Yzerman himself, and more about the team in general. Regardless, city-wide, there is certainly more "buzz" about the Lightning in Tampa Bay, because they're winning.

On his arrival in the Bay area in May, there was that instant shot of "buzz" , because Steve’s hiring made it look like ownership was making a genuine commitment to excellence. There was a reported increase in season ticket sales following Yzerman’s hiring, too.

Yzerman is not earning the amount of buzz as, say, Gretzky to Los Angeles – but he’s also not lacing them up nightly and proving his value on ice. He’s proving his value in the front office. We all know front office life isn’t as sexy as on-ice play. The "buzz" around Yzerman seems fitting for the role he’s playing.

Tampa Bay sits one point ahead of their 24-game pace to start last season with 29. At the time last year, they were third in their division. Is what happened last year over the last three quarters of the season more easily avoidable?  Why?

Let’s go back a year, to begin. The Lightning had bickering owners trying to buy each other out, they had a shoestring budget for the team and a piecemeal squad. Rick Tocchet was still a novice head coach, and had a system on ice that conflicted with the team personnel. There was drama, there were sideshows, and there was monumental inconsistency that was evident even at the start of the season.

From what we’ve seen so far, the Lightning are a much improved squad and have been more consistent and persistent than in recent memory. In fact, it’s surprising that the Bolts have been on such a similar point-pace as last season. The difference between the two teams and the efforts put out is night and day. It’s that consistency and the fact they’re still improving in Guy Boucher’s system that makes it easy to dismiss the notion they will fall down and go boom.

What are the expectations for the team this season? A couple seasons down the road? Where do you expect to see the Lightning finish in five years?

The general perception (and expectation) for the club this season is to make the playoffs, the first playoff berth for the Lightning since 2007. There has been such optimism established by owner Jeffrey Vinik and the personnel he’s put in place (Yzerman, CEO Tod Leiweke) with the focus on making the Lightning "World Class" that it’s hard not to pick up the same optimism for the future of this club.

Of course, nothing is written in stone and anything can happen over the span of several years. The level of optimism in the long term future makes one hope that the Bolts will consistently make the playoffs, and ultimately challenge for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

What's the makeup of the team like? Are you happy with the depth the team has at the forward and defensive positions? Is the farm system in good shape?

Yzerman’s first off-season was spent improving franchise depth at both the NHL and minor league levels. We’ve been seeing how that has paid off with secondary scoring on the Lightning. They aren’t flashy names, but Sean Bergenheim and Dominic Moore have proven to be two of the more important signings of 2010 off-season for the Bolts.

The team has also been able to make promotions from AHL Norfolk without damaging the Admirals to the extent that the Lightning had been guilty of in the past (a constant merry-go-round of promotions and demotions will do that). Having more depth signings made that possible.

While there is talent and depth at forward, the jury is still out on defense. This is a weakness that is carried over from previous regimes in the TB front office. Poor drafting and poor personnel decisions in the past have hurt things. Quality defensive depth is something that will likely be a target in the future.

In general, though, the makeup of the team: The perception is that the Lightning are one of the best young teams out there. The truth is that it’s a team with a heavy mix of veterans rounded out by highly talented young players. That mix helps everyone, as the veteran leadership insulates and guides the younger talent.

Finally, the Stamkos kid, how high is the limit with him? Can he keep this up all season long? Is he the franchise lynchpin around whom the Lightning can build a successful squad? How far off is he from wearing a letter on his chest?

Steven Stamkos has the talent, the work ethic, and the maturity to continue to excel. Everyone knows about him, however, and he’s become target on the ice, so don’t expect the 50-in-50 stuff Puck Daddy was proposing recently. Regardless, Lightning fans won’t end up disappointed with his performance.

As a franchise lynchpin, he rounds out perceived franchise lynchpins that the Bolts have had on their squad for the past decade: Martin St. Louis and (the injured) Vincent Lecavalier. To a degree, it harkens back to the early 2002-2008 when St. Louis, Lecavalier and Brad Richards were all on the squad.

The letter issue has actually been something we’ve seen debated recently. A FanPost on Raw Charge asked the same question back in October, and Cassie McClellan wrote a piece on From The Rink to stress that a leadership position shouldn’t necessarily be linked to scoring ability (which seems to be the driving factor in other captaincies or assistant-captaincies.

Stamkos, at 20, is a bit young for that. Right now there are other major leaders on the squad (current team Captain Vincent Lecavalier, Assistant Captain / dynamo Martin St. Louis, as well as Mattias Ohlund, Simon Gagne and Ryan Malone who have worn letters, with other teams, in the past). Stamkos getting a letter on his jersey and replacing some of those more tenured leaders on the Lightning roster likely will not be happening any time soon.

[Thanks again to John and Meredith for agreeing to do this.  Head on over to Raw Charge for more of their great stuff on the new Hockey Bay in the Southeast.  I just hope they don't get too comfortable with Yzerman at the helm of their club; Ken Holland's not going to be around Detroit forever, you know]