In just under four years, Steve Yzerman has gone from a fairly risky experiment to one of the most intriguing executives in the National Hockey League. In fact, while running the Tampa Bay Lightning, Yzerman has become the kind of general manager others will probably start trying to emulate soon.
On Monday, Lightning owner Jeff Vinik signed the most important hire he's made since taking over the team to a four-year extension. With Yzerman on board long-term, the club continue its noticeably forward progress.
It's always interesting when an ex-player is put in a position of power like that of a general manager. It is a business job as much as it is a hockey job, one that requires the ability to marry the two seamlessly in order to make the best decisions that serve both worlds.
Yzerman was a flashy hire because he wasn't just a former player, he was a former superstar. There aren't many of those types in high office for a variety of reasons. Yzerman, however, wasn't just handed the job. He spent time working alongside Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland and then was charged with building the 2010 Canadian Olympic team. That squad of course won gold and Yzerman became the exec everyone wanted.
Vinik hired Yzerman just two months after his sale was finalized. It was a splash for a franchise coming out of a rocky ownership situation and a lot of turnover. Vinik has shown since Day 1 that he was going to change the Lightning organization and make it a team the city could be proud of and a non-traditional market the NHL could call a success again. It's on its way.
It's on its way because Yzerman hasn't made too many missteps in his quest to build a contender and he has done everything but be conventional about his construction process, which makes him an absolute breath of fresh air in a game that is slow to change.
When an ex-player takes on this role, it seems like they stick to what has always been done, oftentimes surrounding themselves with other former players from upper-management to the head coaching position. Yzerman hasn't really done that.
His first major hire was Guy Boucher as head coach, a man who never played professionally and got his coaching start in youth hockey. In that first season, Boucher led the Lightning all the way to the Eastern Conference Final and took eventual champion Boston to seven games.
Yzerman also made an under-the-radar hire that same summer when he tabbed former lawyer turned decorated junior hockey coach Jon Cooper to lead the club's American Hockey League affiliate. Cooper never played higher than low-level college hockey and also got his start coaching in youth hockey, working his way up to a championship-winning junior coach. He led the Norfolk Admirals on a remarkable run in 2011-12 all the way to the Calder Cup and cemented his status as a rising star in the coaching world.
The Tampa GM also wasn't shy when things weren't working. When Boucher had seemingly lost the room and his style became ill fitting of the team Yzerman had put together for him, Yzerman made the change without batting an eye. Cooper was the natural choice to replace him and now he's a Jack Adams Award candidate, perhaps even the front-runner, having led the Lightning to a 42-27-9 record and into the playoffs.
Even further below the radar, in Yzerman's first fall at the helm, he hired Al Murray to be the club's director of amateur scouting. Murray had become a highly-respected evaluator while working for Hockey Canada. Murray had helped build multiple World Junior Championship teams and knew the prospect landscape as well as anyone.
As a result, the Lightning have drafted well, though not perfectly. Most of the first-round picks in the Yzerman era have yet to see significant playing time at the NHL level, but their development. If first-rounders don't bring immediate help, the club has to hope it drafts well deeper in the draft like Yzerman's old Red Wings routinely did.
In the first draft under Yzerman, which was completed without Murray, the club found Radko Gudas in the third round. The punishing blueliner has 21 points while averaging more than 19 minutes a game for the Lightning this year.
The crowning achievement and very Red Wingy of Yzerman's staff was drafting Ondrej Palat in the seventh round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. This year, he's second on the team in scoring with 55 points and a likely Calder Trophy finalist. Former second-round pick Nikita Kucherov has also matriculated to the everyday roster.
Another way to offset some draft missteps (or players taking longer to matriculate to the NHL from the pipeline) is by going after undrafted free agents and few teams have done so as aggressively and as effectively as the Lightning.
Tyler Johnson is fourth on the team in scoring this year with 48 points, just two years removed from signing with the Lightning out of the Western Hockey League. Passed over because of his size, Murray saw a potential NHL player in the kid who put up 115 points in his last year of junior. He was right.
Former undrafted college players J.T. Brown and Andrej Sustr have also found a place in the lineup this year. The Lightning rarely miss on a player they want because now they have a track record of finding a place for undrafted free agents who can contribute.
A lot of that started when Tampa Bay signed Cory Conacher out of little Canisius College in 2011. He led the AHL Admirals in scoring the next season and then joined the Lightning last season. He was in the middle of a Calder Trophy-caliber campaign when Yzerman stunned the hockey world by trading the undersized scorer for oversized, but underused goalie Ben Bishop.
Yzerman couldn't have possibly expected he'd be getting the goaltender that would ensure the Lightning weathered the storm without Steven Stamkos this year with Vezina-caliber goaltending, but it's a move that worked in spades.
Conacher hasn't really progressed beyond what he accomplished as a rookie, while Bishop is thriving with added responsibility.
By doing what the Lightning have done at the draft and with undrafted free agents, they've built a base. The coaching decisions have been progressive and effective as well, helping this younger group develop into NHL caliber talent.
The club still had tough decisions to make with the NHL roster. Yzerman chose to buy out longtime franchise star Vincent Lacavalier in the offseason. The move freed up space under the cap to continue moving the team forward. That deal had seven years left on it with a cap hit of $7.7 million. You have to credit Vinik as well for signing off on such a move as well.
That allowed the Lightning to sign Valtreri Filppula in free agency to an expensive five-year, $25 million deal. In Year 1, it's paying off as Filppula is the team's leading scorer. Much of the rest of the club was built from within to fill out the NHL roster.
They were able to do that because so many of the young players had already had success at the AHL level and were already familiar with how the organization expected them to play. It's showing in the results this year.
There was also the incredibly difficult decision Yzerman had to make at the trade deadline during the season. By not picking Martin St. Louis the first time around for the Olympic team, Yzerman disappointed last year's scoring champion. That put the GM in the tightest spot he's been in yet in his tenure. How could he deal away the team's captain and top scorer in the middle of a playoff race? Harder still, what if that player will reportedly only agree to go to one team?
It was a tight spot, but one Yzerman made the best of. He was able to get Ryan Callahan back in the deal with the New York Rangers, but to improve on the deal, Yzerman acquired a first-round pick for the very deep 2015 NHL Entry Draft and a conditional second-rounder, where the Lightning have made some good choices in recent years. Even if they don't re-sign Callahan in the offseason, Yzerman got a lot for a guy that everyone knew wanted out.
There aren't many wasted moves by Yzerman. He gets something out of everything it seems. Though he inherited his cornerstone pieces in Steven Stamkos and Victor Headman, he has made this organization better with almost every decision he has made. When something doesn't work, he makes a change almost callously when others would be reluctant to admit failure and press on.
He is going to be challenged next season as many of Tampa's young players are at the end of their entry-level deals including Calder candidate Palat and Johnson. How Yzerman handles that will be a big factor in where this team goes next, but he's certainly earned the benefit of the doubt at this point.
This is the time of year when other general managers are going to lose their jobs because decisions they made set their team back. Even as the record for Tampa Bay has fluctuated over Yzerman's first three seasons, the team has been moving forward the entire time.
Vinik has turned the Lightning into a respectable franchise again, but Yzerman is going to be the person that turns it into a great one. He has four more years to see it through, and with the way things have gone, the best days are ahead for the Tampa Bay Lightning.