As teams prepare for the draft and free agency, we enter into what is one of the busiest times of year for NHL general managers. Before things get really crazy, we wanted to check in again on how Motown's prodigal son is doing in his continued transitions from one of the best on-ice leaders in NHL history to an off-ice architect of champions.
Steve Yzerman left the Red Wings organization to take the job as Tampa Bay's GM for new owner Jeff Vinik in May of 2010. In his first year as GM, new coach Guy Boucher was able to take the Lightning to the Eastern Conference Finals before bowing out to the eventual cup champion Boston Bruins. In year 2, the Lightning missed the playoffs by 7 points while allowing the most goals of any team in the NHL.
While I'm sure Yzerman himself would tell you he's disappointed the team didn't make the playoffs, any hockey mind worth a salt will also remind people that you don't close the book on a GM after year 2. With that in mind, we wanted to reach out to our SB Nation Lightning Blog Raw Charge and get the scoop directly from the people who cover the Lightning. Managing editors John Fontana and Cassie McClellan were kind enough to answer a few questions and give us the proper context by which to gauge Yzerman's impact so far. Q&A after the jump.
With Yzerman having completed season 2 in his position at GM, what's the general feel about how he's progressed the Lightning as an organization?
For a majority of the Tampa Bay Lightning fan base, Steve Yzerman can do no wrong. Because of this, some of us have taken to call him the Jedi Master, so instead of him being a GM, he's the JM. And for those who don't exactly buy into that, he's often given the benefit of the doubt - simply because he is who he is.
Now, Yzerman is one person, and he only has control over the hockey operations side of things. There are others that help him out, like Assistant General Manager Julien BriseBois, who is the team's capologist. And then there's also his scouting staff, which he relies upon, that's led by Assistant General Manager and Director of Player Personnel, Pat Verbeek. Yzerman is the face of change for the Lightning, but he doesn't do it alone.
An interesting thing about Yzerman as a GM is that he has a habit of telling people exactly what he's going to do before he does it. No one ever really believes him since he's an NHL GM, and we've all been conditioned to distrust whatever any GM has to say. Then when Yzerman goes and does exactly what he said he'd do, everyone stands around in stunned disbelief that he did something so incredibly crazy, even tho he warned everyone beforehand.
Could you briefly describe what went wrong for the Lightning last season? Did Yzerman make any big or "red flag-type" errors to cause this?
Well, firstly, Tampa Bay overachieved in 2010-11, raising the expectations for 2011-12 to the stratosphere. "Red-flag" moves would be more subjective among the fanbase. They’d blame Yzerman for not re-signing forward Sean Bergenheim, goaltender Mike Smith, or forward Simon Gagne as the reason why things fell apart, but that’s just fans kvetching at change. Some moves didn’t pan out, injuries to key players mounted at different times, and things just didn’t work out.
Yzerman’s biggest gaffe was probably signing a player who would be injured most of the season (Ryan Shannon) while others will point to re-signing Dwayne Roloson in net. Neither of these can be seen as moves that set off alarm bells and made people collectively think "WTF?"
In the end, there was no one move or gaffe to point out. Season 2 for Yzerman was exactly where they expected to be. Even if it didn't exactly live up to the expectations set by Season 1 for the fan base
After 2 years, what would you say his philosophy is towards building a team? Is he drafting players to fit in Boucher's system or is he devising a system and having Boucher "coach up" the players?
I wouldn’t tie the draft to the NHL team at all at this point, or at least not try to project whose system they are fitting into. Of the two draft classes Yzerman has presided over, there has been only one player that has made the NHL (Brett Connolly) while we haven’t exactly been exposed to what other picks can do.
Yzerman is not acting independently of Guy Boucher, for the most part, in developing the system and team. Players that are selected are players that both guys have viewed and remarked on.
They're coordinating and compromising with each other about players - whether they're drafted, free agent signings, or trades.
You can't really speculate about a general manager's draft picks based upon a single draft. You probably need at least five years to get a reasonable idea of the direction the general manager is trying to take the team. So at this point, it's a very incomplete picture.
What would you say his window is to make the team a contender? After an ECF visit in 2011, expectations might have been high, but are they close to being perennial contenders? How long does he have to make this a reality?
Yzerman is entering Year Three of his four year contract, and as we said in one of our other answers, Year One was a grand overachievement by the Bolts. The consensus message that’s been repeated from all angles of management – the business side, the hockey operations side – is that this is a process that isn’t going to be complete immediately. This approach isn’t something that Yzerman put into place as the Hockey operations guy, but it’s a mentality. To build a contender, you have to… well, you know, build.
As he is on a four-year contract, it would be reasonable to assume that Yzerman would want the team to be near contention by the time his current contract is up. However, so long as there's been marked improvement, he will almost certainly be offered an extension well before the contract is up. At this point, the only reason to believe that Yzerman would not be general manager would be because he chose to leave on his own terms.
Now how close is Tampa Bay to contention? If this year’s weak Eastern Conference is to be used as a barometer, very close. Despite the injuries, inconsistent play and weak goaltending, the Lightning only missed the playoffs by seven points in 2011-12. This team made a run (in spite of Yzerman jettisoning several every-day players during the run up to the 2012 NHL trade deadline), and that reflects how close they are – if adversity didn’t keep getting in their way.
With the great success of the Norfolk Admirals this season, how much of that can be attributed to Yzerman? The roster may not be all "his", but how much did the entire organizational philosophy help create a juggernaut AHL squad?
The overall philosophy within the organization had a lot to do with successes in Norfolk this year. The Admirals weren't doing their own thing; they were doing what the Lightning were doing. The unconventional system of Head Coach Guy Boucher's was being playing by the Ads, with the notion that if any players needed to be promoted to the big club, they'd already be familiar with it.
But coaching personnel also played a big part. By hiring Jon Cooper in 2010, they hired a head coach that has been a winner at every level he's coached. He's been called a "player's coach" by his players, who talk glowingly about him and his communicating skills.
And while the roster was not made up of "Yzerman’s guys", mix-and-match group from three different regimes acquired in a variety of ways, it was players brought in by Yzerman’s regime who took the league by storm (Cory Conacher and Tyler Johnson specifically).