Building the Lightning: Vinik’s Vision Coming to Life

“The best decisions aren’t always the easy ones.” The age old adage is often passed on to kids from parents, but it also is a phrase that many general managers in the National Hockey League can identify with.

In a league currently made up of thirty teams, and with the salary cap tied to league revenues, the discipline and creativity needed to be consistent in this league is arguably at an all-time high. More emphasis than ever has been placed on drafting well, spending smart, and at times, taking chances based on instinct and solid intuition. There is not a single NHL general manager that is batting one thousand, but then again, what sort of skill would it require to manage a professional hockey team if there were any?

For the Tampa Bay Lightning, a long-term view of the franchise from ownership and management down has helped pave the way for its current success.

Vinik Purchases Lightning: Pledges Dedication to Team and Community

To understand the present with the Lightning, it requires a look at the not too distant past. On Feb. 5, 2010, a 50-year-old hedge fund manager named Jeff Vinik purchased the team. He told fans he would make the Lightning a world-class organization both on and off the ice and have the team consistently compete for the Stanley Cup. Vinik wasted no time in putting his words into action, as he hired Steve Yzerman as the team’s GM in May and Tod Leiweke as the team’s CEO in July of that year.

Yzerman echoed Vinik’s vision, explaining that the team was a long-term project but that the goal was to become a perennial contender. Yzerman was fresh off of four years working under Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, who knows a lot about building for the long-term. Leiweke came to the franchise with a track record of growing a team’s brand and would be instrumental in doing the same in Tampa Bay.

Steven Stamkos (Icon SMI)
Steven Stamkos had his first taste of the NHL playoffs during a surprise run to the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals. (Photo Credit: Icon SMI)

Early Success: The 2011 Eastern Conference Final Run

During the 2010-11 season, the Lightning were led by rookie coach Guy Boucher and to the surprise of many in the league, the team won forty-six games in the regular season and fell to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games. The Lightning had missed the playoffs the previous three seasons (one of which led to drafting Steven Stamkos) and had fallen on hard times as a franchise.

Looking back, the success of the 2010-11 season gave some fans a false sense of reality in where the franchise was on the long-term trajectory that Yzerman spoke about when he was brought in. When the dust of the Game 7 loss to the Bruins cleared, what was left was still an aging team with salary cap issues and no clear franchise goaltender. Although Lightning fans had a taste of a deep playoff run for the first time since the summer 2004, Vinik and Yzerman still had a lot of work to do.

Nikita Kucherov
Nikita Kucherov was one of a handful of important players selected by the Lightning during the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The 2011 NHL Entry Draft: Building the Foundation for the Future

In order to have sustained success as a franchise in the Post-2004-05 lockout era, there is a need for a solid stream of young talent through the NHL Entry Draft.  A quick look at the 2011 draft for the Lightning quickly explains how the tone was set for this franchise early on. These picks include Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov, Nikita Nesterov, and Ondrej Palat (208th overall, if you can believe it). This was Yzerman and his scouting staff’s first real draft, having had just months to prepare for the 2010 draft. Just before the draft, in March 2011, Yzerman inked unrestricted free agent Tyler Johnson to an entry level contract. These moves provided the foundation of young talent to go along with Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. (Jonathan Drouin would be drafted in 2013.)

The Four Moves That Altered the Course of the Franchise

Given the long-term view taken by Vinik and Yzerman, this meant that the franchise would still have bumpy roads ahead for another couple of years before the fruits of their decisions would become fully realized. The Lightning would miss the playoffs the next two seasons, but important management decisions during that timeframe changed the course of the franchise.

Coach Cooper Takes Over for Guy Boucher in Surprise Coaching Decision

On March 25, 2013, Guy Boucher was fired with just 17 games left in the season and replaced by Jon Cooper, a former securities trader and lawyer turned hockey coach, that had worked his way up the ranks and had tremendous success with the Norfolk Admirals/Syracuse Crunch, the Lightning’s AHL affiliate. This decision was not merely throwing darts at a board of potential coaches. It was a calculated decision that went right in line with the long-term goals set forth by Vinik and Yzerman. Cooper had spent time in the AHL grooming the team’s future: Palat, Kucherov, Johnson, Namestnikov, Paquette, Nesterov, and others. Bringing in Cooper over a coach like Lindy Ruff allowed Yzerman to grow the team from within.

Ben Bishop
Ben Bishop was acquired by the Lightning at a small price. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Landing a Franchise Goaltender: The Ben Bishop Trade

On April 3, 2013, Yzerman pulled the trigger on a deadline deal that sent Cory Conacher to the Ottawa Senators for an over-sized goalie named Ben Bishop. At the time, Bishop was an unproven goaltender who seemed to have a world of potential but had never really stuck in the NHL. After being drafted by the St. Louis Blues in 2005, he spent a short stint with the team before being traded to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for a second-round draft pick in 2013. In fact, at the time Bishop came to the Lightning, he had played in just 36 NHL games!

Conacher, on the other hand, was viewed by some Lightning fans as a Martin St. Louis in the making. In Conacher’s defense, he fit the St. Louis mold in a number of ways. He was an undersized player that came into the league as an undrafted free agent. Conacher had some success and looked promising, but there was no denying that the Lightning was in dire need of a legitimate (future) number one goalie. Three years later, it is clear that this is the most important trade Yzerman has made.

Vincent Lecavalier was bought by the Lightning in 2013, ending an era for the franchise. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)
Vincent Lecavalier’s contract was bought by the Lightning in 2013, ending an era for the franchise. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Business Decisions: The Vincent Lecavalier Contract Buyout

On June 27, 2013, the end of an era came for arguably the franchise’s most important star to date, as Vincent Lecavalier’s remaining contract (at seven years, and an annual cap hit of $7.72 million per year) was bought out for a total of $32.67 million. In 1998, Lecavalier came to the Tampa Bay Lightning as the number one pick in the draft. Pegged “The Michael Jordan of hockey” in a humorous prediction by then owner, Art Williams (who admittedly did not know a lot about hockey when he bought the team), Lecavalier came to the franchise at one of its darkest moments. Lecavalier would grow into the team’s number one center, a Rocket Richard trophy winner, and a Stanley Cup champion.

As an important aside, he would also go down as one of the most visible athletes in the community, as there was no shortage of good that he did for the area. (Most notably, creating the Vincent Lecavalier Foundation and later pledging $3 million to the All Children’s Hospital, paving the way for the Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center in St. Petersburg.)

From a public relations standpoint, the buyout of Lecavalier was almost unthinkable to the average fan. However, a realistic look at the situation for the team and the economic landscape of the game in the salary cap era necessitated the move from a business standpoint.

Ryan Callahan came to the Lightning in a draft day deal that shocked the hockey world. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Ryan Callahan came to the Lightning in a draft day deal that shocked the hockey world. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

O Captain, My Captain: St. Louis for Callahan (and More)

On March 6, 2014, Yzerman executed the “other most important trade in team history” when he traded Martin St. Louis to the New York Rangers for Ryan Callahan. While there were also some draft picks involved in the deal (one of which became a first round pick when the Rangers made it to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final) the crux of the deal was most certainly the exchange of each team’s captain.

If the Lecavalier buyout was unthinkable, the St. Louis trade was impossible. St. Louis, like Lecavalier, had also been a face of the franchise and the heart and soul of the team. Callahan was the same sort of player for the Rangers, but after contract extension negotiations broke down with the Rangers, it was anticipated he was going to be moved. Prior to the deadline, St. Louis had made headlines when it became public that he requested a trade after he was not named to the initial Team Canada roster (managed by Yzerman) for the Olympic Games. However crazy the trade was perceived to be from a P.R. standpoint, it was equally as brilliant from a hockey view. At the time, St. Louis was months shy of his 39th birthday and had just one year left on his current contract. Although somewhat ageless looking at times, he had slowed down some and the fact that he wanted out of Tampa meant that it was a ripe time to move him.

On the other hand, Callahan was 28-years-old and if the Lightning could re-sign him at the end of the year, he could become a major part of the team moving forward. As it turns out, two years later St. Louis is retired and the Callahan trade ultimately led to the free agent signings of Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman – two Rangers pals that were interested in the Lightning and sold on the franchise in part, based upon Callahan’s input.

Putting it All Together: Long-Term Mentality Playing Out

In a world driven by instant gratification and a “win now” mentality in sports, the words that Vinik and Yzerman uttered in 2010 have held true to the present day. On the ice, the Lightning will soon begin its third Eastern Conference Finals appearance in six years, putting them on a short list made up of the league’s elite. While a Stanley Cup is never guaranteed, it is realistic to believe that the table has been set to keep this team competitive for years.

Off the ice, Vinik has set a sterling example of what it means to grow a brand through community service (see his work with the Vinik Family Foundation, the Lightning Foundation, the Community Hero Program at each Lighting home game, or simply drive around the city). While the work will not be complete until this team wins another Stanley Cup (or perhaps, a couple), Vinik and Yzerman continue to embrace the ideals that separate the good teams from the great ones.