Sunday, January 23, 2011

Yzerman Winning Again, and It's No Surprise

It’s a different type of competitiveness now.

These days, Steve Yzerman doesn’t go into the corners, he goes into an office. He doesn’t try to win face-offs, he tries to win players. He doesn’t wear a sweater and skates, he wears a dress shirt and wingtip shoes.

You can dress him however you like, put him wherever you want, but you can’t take the will to win out of him.

There’s quite a story going on in the NHL, not that you’d know it, because it’s happening to a team closer to Cuba than Canada.

Yzerman is Vice President and General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a hockey team that really does play in the NHLI looked it up.

Yzerman took the Tampa job because he wanted to run an NHL team in the worst way. Mission accomplished; the Lightning has been an NHL team in the worst way in recent years.

At the time of his hiring last May, the Lightning hadn’t had a winning season since 2007. As recently as 2008-09, the Lightning were 24-40-18, a nice way of saying they won 24 and lost 58.

But Yzerman didn’t care. He wasn’t going to realize his dream of running an NHL organization inDetroitwhere everyone is entrenched and there’s a waiting list.

He retired as a player in July 2006 and immediately started his internship in the Red Wings’ front office. You could do worse than to learn from the hockey minds in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena.

Kenny Holland. Jimmy Devellano. Jim Nill. Mark Howe. And, for a time, Scotty Bowman.

You don’t think Stevie Y learned a thing or two?

It wasn’t going to happen in Detroit for Yzerman, so after four years of apprenticeship, The Captain got restless. He wanted to be The General Manager.

The Tampa Bay Lightning wanted to be respected. They wanted to be more than a nice little team who played in Florida and who would visit your team’s city, lose, and politely leave.

The Lightning looked at Yzerman, a hockey icon, saw his situation in Detroit, and got some ideas. New owner Jeff Vinik, who had bought the team in March 2010, set his sights on Yzerman and no one else, according to reports.

When the news broke of the Lightning’s interest in Yzerman, I wrote that he ought to take the job, no matter how repulsive it was. The job, I wrote, was beneath Yzerman, to work for the Lightning, who weren’t even in the NHL until 1992.

But he absolutely needed to take it I argued, if he wanted to realize his GM dream forthwith.

The Lightning not only made Yzerman the GM, they tagged him with the title of Vice President, too. He reports only to owner Vinik, who put complete faith and trust into Yzerman’s ability to rebuild his organization.

Seems Yzerman has indeed learned some things, wiling away his time in the Red Wings’ front office.

The Lightning are among the best teams in hockey right now and Yzerman has played no small part in the resurgence.

First, he hired a new coach, 38-year-old Guy Boucher. Yzerman couldn’t care less that most hockey people outside of Boucher’s next of kin would say, “Guy WHO?”

“Guy Boucher is one of the finest young hockey coaches in the game today,” Yzerman said in announcing his first hire as VP/GM.

Boucher’s résumé was as a minor league coach who had his finest season in 2009-10 with the AHL’sHamilton Bulldogs, winning 52 games and garnering 115 points.

Then, as his first choice, Yzerman drafted winger Brett Connolly, surprising the people labeled with that hackneyed term, “expert.”

Connolly was coming off an injury and it was a curve ball that Yzerman threw, because the supposed conventional choices were top-rated defensemen Cam Fowler and Brandon Gormley—who both slipped in the first round—making them available to the Lightning at sixth.

Connolly is 18 years-old and if his recovery from his hip flexor injury proceeds as Yzerman expects, The General Manager will have pulled a fast one.

Yzerman was 18 once, only he was in the NHL at that age, drafted third overall by the Red Wings in 1983. Three years later, he was the team’s captain.

You know the rest.

Yzerman made some other roster moves, tweaks and such, in preparation for his first season as VP/GM.

Then they dropped the puck on opening night, and the Lightning has been striking ever since.

After 10 games, the Lightning were 7-2-1, followed by a little lull, then a five-game winning streak that made them 13-7-2.

Restless again in his Armani suit, Yzerman looked at the goaltending situation and found it to be unacceptable.

So he traded for veteran Dwayne Roloson, and when I say "veteran," I’m trying to be polite. Roloson is 41 years old.

But the new/old goalie is playing OK for Yzerman’s team, going 5-3 with a save percentage of .910.

The young coach Boucher is doing better than OK with his equally-as-young team, squeezing every ounce of hockey-playing skill from it.

The Lightning, going into Saturday, were sitting at 29-15-5, second best in the Eastern Conference. They won just 34 games all of last season.

Yzerman is winning again—big surprise.

No team with which Yzerman has been associated has had a losing season since 1991.

Now he’s taking the slapstick Tampa Bay Lightning and making them the new Beasts of the East.

Veteran hockey observer Scotty Morrison had this to say about Yzerman’s decision to sign the 41-year-old goalie Roloson to compete with incumbents Dan Ellis and Mike Smith, both into whom Yzerman had put faith:

"There are some guys who would refuse to admit that things weren't working as anticipated and might ride it out longer and wait too long. Whether it's admitting a mistake or admitting he needed an improvement, (Yzerman) went out and did it, so good for him."

Steve Yzerman, some might say, has nothing left to prove in hockey. He’s won three Stanley Cups, played for 22 seasons and overcome injuries that would make a medical examiner wince.

But competitors never stop competing. Yzerman has wanted this very badly for many years. He’s wanted to be a hockey architect, ever since he saw how the best did it in Detroit.

Yzerman is turning the Tampa (freaking) Bay Lightning into winners in his first year on the job.


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