To understand how Steve Yzerman has turned around the Tampa Bay Lightning, start with the signing of Sean Bergenheim(notes) to a one-year, $700,000 deal. As the Bolts were piecing together their lines over the summer, they had a spot to fill – third-line left winger. Yzerman said they were just looking for someone who could check, kill penalties, chip in the odd goal and fit the budget.
“For the most part,” Yzerman said, “he’s done that and probably exceeded that.”
Typical Yzerman understatement. Bergenheim, who has never scored more than 15 goals in an NHL season, has chipped in, oh, only a league-leading eight goals in the first playoff run of his career. The Lightning, which had missed the playoffs three years in a row, sits just seven victories from the Stanley Cup entering Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final Tuesday night against the Boston Bruins.
“You’ve got to be lucky,” said Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, Yzerman’s old boss and mentor. All GMs do. That said, Holland added: “I mean, the guy is sitting out there for anybody to sign, and he signed him.”
And the signing of Bergenheim was just one of a series of successful moves – from hiring rookie coach Guy Boucher, to resigning Martin St. Louis(notes), to acquiring veterans Dwayne Roloson(notes) and Eric Brewer(notes) during the season. It’s not just that Yzerman hit the jackpot with Bergenheim. It’s that he never really went bust with anyone else.
“I don’t think any of his moves backfired,” said Chicago Blackhawks senior advisor Scotty Bowman, who coached Yzerman in Detroit and worked with him in the Wings’ front office. “Steve’s moves are paying off.”
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. But it’s best to be lucky and good, and what Yzerman has done as a rookie general manager is no accident. He has the makeup for this job, and he essentially prepared for it his whole hockey life. He had what he called a “fascination with the position” as a young player, and it grew as he captained the Wings to three Stanley Cups, won another Cup as a front-office apprentice with the Wings and won an Olympic gold medal as Team Canada’s executive director.
“Winning follows him around, and I think there’s a reason for that – I think his determination, his stubbornness, his passion, his work ethic,” Holland said. “And he plans.”
Holland emphasized that last word, for good reason.
“Working with Steve now, I don’t talk about rolling the dice anymore,” Boucher said. “He thinks of everything long and hard, and it’s not that everything is going to work, but everything has a pretty good chance of turning out at least positively.”
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Look at some of Yzerman’s major moves, and you can see the roots in his experience. He might be a rookie GM, but he had a Hall of Fame playing career with the Red Wings, spent four years in their front office and ventured out on his own with Hockey Canada. He has drawn from all of it.
Yzerman knew to wait for the right opportunity. He saw how the Wings won with a singular, committed owner in Mike Ilitch and a strong core of players. He found a singular, committed owner in Jeff Vinik, who had just bought the Lightning, and he inherited some cornerstones: St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier(notes), who had won the 2004 Cup with Tampa Bay, and Steven Stamkos(notes) and Victor Hedman(notes), up-and-coming young stars.
It would have been easy to play it safe with his first coaching hire, but Yzerman went with Boucher, who was 38 at the time, had only one season of pro experience in the minors and had never set foot in the NHL.
Yzerman checked with common acquaintances they had at Hockey Canada and became convinced Boucher was ready. He pointed to the Wings’ Mike Babcock, who had no NHL experience before 2002-03, when he took Anaheim to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. He might have looked back to Bowman, one of the game’s innovators. Boucher has already become known for his 1-3-1 system that Bowman compared to his old left wing lock.
“When you bring new stuff into the NHL, it’s going to be copied, but if you’re the first guy to do it, it works,” Bowman said. “Boucher was a terrific hire for Steve. It’s pretty tempting to hire an experienced coach.”
One of Yzerman’s important early moves was signing St. Louis to a contract extension. This was a Red Wings move. He locked up St. Louis for a reasonable price (a $5.625 million cap hit the next four seasons), and he looked at skill, intelligence, competitiveness and production over age (St. Louis turns 36 on June 18) and size (St. Louis is listed at only 5-foot-8, 176 pounds). St. Louis became a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player.
“We haven’t been afraid of age around here,” Holland said. “Even though St. Louis is 35 or 36 years of age, he gave him security. He told him, ‘You’re my guy.’ ”
Yzerman knew St. Louis, Lecavalier, Stamkos and Hedman wouldn’t be enough, though. He knew the Wings wouldn’t have won Cups without their Grind Line guys – Kirk Maltby(notes), Kris Draper(notes) and Darren McCarty(notes). He signed Bergenheim and Dominic Moore(notes), who have gelled with Steve Downie(notes) as an effective playoff line.
“The players that I played with in Detroit, they were all extremely competitive guys,” Yzerman said. “Your third- and fourth-line players all have to chip in and contribute. … You look through the course of a playoff, the injuries that you suffer, guys that play 10 minutes a game might be playing 15 minutes a game, and guys that play 15 might be playing 20, and that’s been the case for our club. The more depth you have, the stronger players you have, you’re going to need them, and that’s how you advance.”
Roloson? A 41-year-old goaltender? Again, Yzerman was unafraid of age, and he knew Roloson well. Roloson was the Edmonton Oilers’ goaltender in 2006 when they upset the top-seeded Red Wings in the first round – Yzerman’s final playoff series as a player – and went to the Cup final. Roloson went 4-0 for Team Canada under Yzerman at the 2007 world championships, and he had been excellent for the New York Islanders earlier this season. Roloson gave the Bolts the consistency they needed in goal, to say the least.
“Watching him play,” Yzerman said, “I don’t think he’s done anything that Dwayne Roloson isn’t accustomed to doing.”
Brewer? Not only did Yzerman win gold with Brewer as Canadian teammates at the 2002 Olympics, they stayed in the same suite in Salt Lake. Yzerman roomed with Mario Lemieux, but Brewer and three others were in rooms that shared a common area. Yzerman knew intimately what kind of person and player Brewer was, and he figured Brewer could solidify the Lightning’s defense for the playoffs.
“Brewer was exactly what we needed,” Boucher said. “We needed somebody that was going to be able to log a lot of minutes, have the speed to play against top lines that are fast, have the size to play against bigger lines, be able to play on the power play and the penalty kill and have leadership. So if you put that down as a shopping list, that’s a pretty big shopping list that chances are you’re not going to be able to fill, and obviously Mr. Yzerman has done an incredible job.”
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Mr. Yzerman? Wasn’t it just yesterday that he was Stevie Y?
Yzerman grew from a kid into an icon in Detroit. He became known as “The Captain” and had his image on the side of a building downtown. He could have stayed in his comfort zone working for the Red Wings or simply representing them as a living legend. After spending his entire adult life with one organization, it was difficult for him to go to the Lightning.
“I met with the owner last year and talked to him about Steve,” Bowman said. “I didn’t think he would leave Detroit. I told him that.”
But the Wings already had one of the top management teams in hockey, if not the best, with Holland and assistant general manager Jim Nill. If Yzerman wanted to run his own team, he had to go to another team. So he left his family behind in Detroit. With a long break between the second and third rounds, Yzerman came home for a couple of days, then headed back to Tampa, standing in the security line at Detroit Metro Airport like just another business traveler, taking off his shoes, pushing his bags through the X-ray machine.
Yzerman wants to win now. That’s part of what drew him to Boucher. “I talked to Guy at the beginning of the season,” Yzerman said. “His goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and he says, ‘I’ll figure out a way.’ He’s got big expectations of himself.” Sounds familiar.
But Yzerman has done all of this committed to a long-term vision. Remember that the Lightning didn’t spend up to the salary cap this season. Yzerman also made some deft financial moves and hasn’t hamstrung himself.
He made a couple of trades with the Philadelphia Flyers in which he unloaded defensemen Andrej Meszaros(notes) and Matt Walker(notes), who had pricey long-term contracts, and acquired winger Simon Gagne(notes), who had a $5.25 million salary but for only one more season. He signed goaltender Dan Ellis(notes) to a two-year, $3 million deal but was able to trade him to the Ducks. He acquired Roloson from the Islanders for Ty Wishart(notes) on Jan. 1. He acquired Brewer from the St. Louis Blues for Brock Beukeboom(notes) and a third-round pick Feb. 18.
“He didn’t pay a lot for these guys,” Bowman said. “He didn’t mortgage the future.”
Yzerman wants to build a team that contends for the Cup year in and year out like the Wings have – drafting well, developing well, reaching a standard of excellence and professionalism and then maintaining it. To do that, he’ll have to be lucky. He’ll have to be good. Mostly, he’ll have to work hard, and he has never been afraid of that.
“Obviously we’re thrilled in Year 1 to be where we are,” Yzerman said. “But again, I want to look back in a few years and say, ‘Hey, you know what? We’ve done a real good job. Our team is where we want to be. Our organization is where we want it to be.’ So we’re enjoying this, but we recognize we’ve got a lot of work to do.”