After transitioning from a Hall of Fame playing career to the Detroit Red Wings’ front office and then assembling Canada’s gold-medal winning Olympic team, Steve Yzerman having the ability to turn the Tampa Bay Lightning into a contender wasn’t in doubt.
Few expected him to do it this soon.
The Lightning are atop their division with 74 points - just like the Red Wings - heading into Thursday night’s showdown at the St. Pete Times Forum, the clubs’ first since Yzerman left Detroit to become Tampa Bay’s general manager.
Yzerman’s brilliant 22-year playing career ended in May 2006, and by September he joined the Red Wings’ front office alongside general manager Ken Holland.
He couldn’t have done better in his first chance at assembling a winner, putting together the Canadian Olympic roster that took home gold in the 2010 Vancouver Games. But with Holland running Detroit (34-16-6), Yzerman decided in May to leave for Tampa, where he became the vice president and general manager of a team that finished 2009-10 with the league’s sixth-fewest points.
The transition couldn’t be going much better. The Lightning (34-17-6) are in position to win the Southeast Division for the first time since 2003-04, and they’re 8-2-1 since Jan. 15 even after Tuesday’s 4-3 shootout loss to Philadelphia.
Yzerman insists Thursday’s meeting with the Red Wings is little more than another litmus test for his young team.
“I don’t think we should make this any more than one game,” Yzerman told the NHL’s official website. “For us, I look at it as we’re trying to win every game we can and we’re playing against one of the best teams in the league. It’s a nice test to see how we hold up against (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg and penetrate the best defense in the league.”
Yzerman brought in defensemen Pavel Kubina(notes) and Brett Clark(notes) along with forward Simon Gagne(notes) in the offseason, but perhaps his best move has been the January trade for goaltender Dwayne Roloson(notes). The 13-year veteran is 9-5-1 with a 2.64 goals-against average - nearly half a goal better than what the team was allowing prior to his arrival.
“(Roloson) has played a long time, he’s been a starter for a long time, and is just kind of a calming influence back there,” Yzerman said.
Roloson won the last two times he faced Detroit, including once this season while with the Islanders, but his new team hasn’t had any such luck. Tampa Bay has five losses and one tie against the Red Wings since last beating them Jan. 7, 2003, and is 5-22-1 with two ties in the all-time series.
Detroit, meanwhile, has a six-point cushion on Nashville in the Central Division and is getting healthy. Datsyuk has five points in four games since returning from a broken wrist - including a goal in Sunday’s 4-2 win over Boston - and defenseman Brad Stuart(notes) should play Thursday for the first time since suffering a broken jaw Jan. 7.
For the 12 current Red Wings that once played with Yzerman, though, stopping one of the league’s most potent offenses - and seeking a sixth straight win against the East - won’t be all they’re thinking about.
“But it doesn’t surprise me that that team is playing at such a high level with Stevie running the show.”