The Detroit Red Wings are in town this week to play the Tampa Bay Lightning for a two-game set. Steve Yzerman, the Red Wings executive vice president and general manager is, of course, the former Tampa GM. The impact he had on building the Bolts into a perennial Stanley Cup contender should go without saying. Nonetheless, the measured and intelligent way of how he accomplished this is still worth mentioning.
This current Tampa squad boasts, arguably, the most talented roster in the NHL. So, Yzerman surely built this team with lots of early first-round picks and high-priced free agent signings, right? Wrong. In fact, of the eight first-round draft picks chosen during his tenure, only two players, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Cal Foote remain with the Lightning. As for the signings, his best is probably a toss-up between head coach Jon Cooper and the current Bolts GM Julien BriseBois.
The jury is still out on what Foote can bring to an NHL team, night in and night out. The same cannot be said about Vasilevskiy. Since taking over for Ben Bishop as the starting goalie, he’s been a three-time All-Star, won the Vezina Trophy and backboned last year’s Stanley Cup triumph. Even so, as great a pick as Vasi was, Yzerman wasn’t great at picking first-round talent.
Yzerman Turned a Weakness Into a Strength
Now, some might say “Hey, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman were picked in the first round!” That is true, but they were both already on the team by the time Yzerman got to Tampa. Stamkos was drafted by Jay Feaster first overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Hedman was picked second overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft by Brian Lawton.
Despite missing on most of his first-round picks, Yzerman was able to flip some of those failures into good players for the club. The first deal that comes to mind is the Jonathan Drouin to Montreal trade that netted Mikhail Sergachev in June of 2017. When Drouin decided not to go to the Lightning AHL affiliate Syracuse Crunch earlier in the season, the writing was on the wall to make a move. After Drouin didn’t report, the Bolts decided to bring him back to the big club. He actually played well the rest of the year, chipping in 53 points in 73 games which helped the team move him that summer. As for Sergachev, the club just signed him to a three-year extension this past offseason.
Another deal that stands out is the February 2018 trade between the Lightning and New York Rangers. In that deal, the Lightning got J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh in exchange for Vlad Namestnikov, Brett Howden, Libor Hajek and two draft picks. In Namestnikov and Howden, Tampa was able to get rid of two unproductive first-round picks for a pair of tried and true, NHL-ready players. Miller was traded to the Vancouver Canucks on the second day of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, but McDonagh has remained a stalwart for the Bolts. Ironically, Namestnikov has reunited with Yzerman in Detroit after signing a two-year deal in October 2020.
Finding Late Round Talent Was His Bread and Butter
It’s time now to reflect on the true genius moves made by Yzerman during his time in Tampa. If first-round picks weren’t his strength, identifying talent in the later rounds certainly was. It started in 2011 with picking Nikita Kucherov, arguably the best player in that year’s draft, at 58th overall. In 515 games with the club, he has 547 points on 221 goals and 326 assists and is a plus-128.
So far with the Lightning, Kucherov has been a four-time All-Star, won the Ted Lindsay Award for being the best player according to the NHLPA, won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer and the Hart Trophy for league MVP. Kucherov probably should’ve won the Conn Smythe Trophy last season as well, but not too many people can balk at Hedman taking the award for playoff MVP.
In the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, somehow Brayden Point slipped all the way to the third round where the Lightning finally took him off the board. In 302 games played with the Bolts, Point has 270 points on 119 goals and 151 assists while posting a plus-80. Very good numbers, but more importantly, Point has shown he can play great in the playoffs. In 2017-18 he had 16 points in the 17 games played, with seven goals and nine assists as a 21-year-old. Last season in the bubble he exploded for 33 points in the 23 games, leading the team with 14 goals.
Another third-rounder of note is Anthony Cirelli, picked in 2015. Cirelli is a career plus-64, logging valuable minutes as a penalty killer and face-off man. Cirelli led the team a year ago in face-offs (914) and face-off wins (434).
Late round gems like these are hard to find. Undrafted gems are even more difficult to find. Tyler Johnson was passed on by every NHL team, including Tampa, before being signed by the Lightning in March of 2011. The Lightning did place him on waivers this offseason, twice, but that was purely for salary cap reasons. He has been a steady performer for most of his time in Tampa posting 339 points in 534 games with four seasons of over 20 goals.
The Current Lightning Squad Is Built for the Long Haul
The 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning had a lot of things going for them and were a fun team to root for. Head coach John Tortorella was colorful and drove the team all the way to the franchise’s first championship. That team also had some really great players in its own right. Players like, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards are some of the best players to put on a Bolts jersey. That team, unfortunately, did not have the longevity that this team potentially has moving forward. This current roster should be a Cup contender for years to come.
The Lightning has been constructed, thoughtfully and competently, mostly through the draft. Teams built this way usually have a much larger championship window than those built mostly with free agents. None of this is to say that Yzerman did it all by himself. The Bolts have had one of the best scouting departments in the NHL for quite a while. BriseBois was instrumental in aiding the development of most of the current players during his time as GM of the Syracuse Crunch. Stamkos and Hedman, two cornerstones for sure, were already Lightning players before Yzerman made his first moves.
Yet, the one thing Yzerman did above all else, was giving the Lightning an identity around the league they never had before. Yes, BriseBois filled in some cracks in the roster to get the team over the hump, but the foundation of the club was already in place. Yzerman absolutely deserves a Stanley Cup ring from the team for everything he was able to do in Tampa. The overall view of the Lightning as one of the model franchises in the NHL started with Stevie Y and that is something that should never be forgotten.