(Photo: Oliver Spalt/Wikimedia/CC BY 2.0)
Are the Lighting rebuilding or are they finished that process and trying to recover? Have they added enough pieces in Stamkos, Hedman, Connolly and others to climb out of the SouthEast division and become regular playoff contenders? Or are they still lacking in too many critical areas? Is Steve Yzerman the GM to build a winning team in Florida?
Tampa Bay is another one of those franchises that many of us aren’t able to follow that closely. They play in a non-traditional market, haven’t been competitive since 2004, and despite several high draft picks, don’t appear to have gained any traction. Tampa Bay seems to be one of those teams that fans only talk about when they come to town to play, or on draft day.
With that in mind I thought they were worth a closer look. I mean, it isn’t like we don’t have the time.
When Steve Yzerman accepted the job as GM two years ago, many were excited at the prospect of his joining the team. It was seen as one more step towards greatness for a team that had recently added Stamkos and Hedman while retaining Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. Yzerman was considered to be the best GM-in-waiting, following a brief apprenticeship in Detroit under Ken Holland and Jim Nill.
Just prior to Yzerman’s coming on board, Jeff Vinik had purchased the team from Len Barrie and Oren Koules, putting the team’s ownership into a decidedly more stable position. Vinik is a shrewd businessman and wasted no time at the end of the 2009-2010 season in making some necessary changes. He fired Rick Tocchet as head coach and Brian Lawton as GM. A month later he hired Steve Yzerman. Why was it that Vinik was able to procure Yzerman’s services when so many other owners would have gladly given the rookie GM a chance?
Catching Lightning in a Bottle?
Jeff Vinik can have my money any day of the week. When Vinik was working for Fidelity Magellan, between 1992 and 1996, he returned an average annual rate of 17%. Not bad. When he left Fidelity and started his own little asset management company, called Vinik Asset Management which invested primarily in hedge funds, he returned to his investors nearly 94% within 11 months and then made them roughly 50% a year for the next three years. By 2000, he had made for his investors approximately $4.2 billion. Then he decided to quit and just manage his own portfolio.
Jeff, if you’re reading this, call me.
Today Vinik’s value is estimated as just shy of $5 billion with a portfolio evenly balanced across technology, basic materials, services, industrial goods and the nebulous term “other”. I say just shy because as of June 2012 he had $300 million to go.
Seriously, Jeff. Call. We’ll do lunch.
Fair to say that Vinik was an owner who may have caught the attention of some people in the business of hockey.
Prospects and Potential
I tend to defer to Pronman’s evaluations for a few reasons. He confers with NHL executives about the prospects in other teams’ systems, thus offering a professional and largely objective opinion. He also covers the entire league, thus putting many prospects into a much larger context than doing it on a team-by-team basis. His Vukota system is a very accurate predictor of NHL performance and his scouting reports tend to shy away from hyperbole. Taken together I feel that his is as unbiased a perspective as there is when gathering information on the prospects of teams around the league. It isn’t perfect, but it is one of the tools that I have selected to help provide insight into a team’s depth.
The Lighting’s prospect depth has some very valuable pieces to it, especially so when one considers the talent that has already been graduated to the NHL. For instance, Vlad Namestnikov is a highly-regarded center prospect who would be at the top of at least 25 teams’ prospect lists at that position. Due to fortunate drafting, he sits behind Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos at the center position. Brett Connolly is often listed as a right-winger, but was drafted with a history at the center position and so provides more depth to the organization at potentially both those positions.
The Lightning have an abundance of wingers available and developing. Their current roster will be in need of support in the bottom six due to free-agency, however those players are often easy to retain, especially so when lured by a young roster core and a respected GM.
Following that, Mark Barberio is the team’s top defensive prospect and is ranked anywhere from being a solid #3 blueline option to a potential top-pairing offensive defenseman. He sits behind a decent blueline that currently boasts Matt Carle, Victor Hedman, Eric Brewer, and Matthias Ohlund signed to multi-year deals. Add to that the recently drafted Slater Koekkoek and the defensive group for the Lightning appears to be one of the strengths of the organization.
The Lightning have a well-balanced prospect group with talent and depth at nearly every position, and their current core group of players would appear to be enough to sustain the interest of the fan base while waiting for the next generation of players to graduate to the NHL.
Evaluating Steve Yzerman
I can’t do that yet. Seriously, he hasn’t been in his first GM position long enough for me to adequately evaluate any of his moves aside from saying that the early returns appear to be generally positive. I will give my general impressions of how he has done thus far, but it needs to be made perfectly clear that it is still far too early to say whether he is the GM that many hoped he would become after retiring.
Looking over his moves since taking the job, he has made some deft trades to shore up immediate areas of concern when it looked like the team was going to make the playoffs, but one of those same moves, namely Dwayne Roloson, ended up failing miserably the following year when the goals against rose by 41.
Yzerman’s strengths thus far have been identifying required assets and then making arrangements to acquire those assets. The value of a player relative to two parties involved (A, the seller, and B, the buyer) in an exchange may be less than it is to a third party (C) who lacks either the assets or the ability to negotiate directly. Yzerman has demonstrated an ability in leveraging certain players and draft picks in order to acquire the price he has deemed necessary for a separate transaction that advances his team’s interests. For instance, in and of itself, the trade of Dominic Moore would not have enabled the Lightning to acquire Anders Lindback. The Predators had no interest in the player and while they were willing to part with Lindback, the Lightning could not offer enough to acquire him without depleting their precious stock of prospects. Therefore, Moore was traded to San Jose, who needed that depth player for a playoff push, at the return of a 2nd round pick in 2012. Yzerman then approached Nashville with something they did need, draft picks. Having depleted their picks at the trade deadline in 2011 for their draft selections of that year and 2012 in their run for the playoffs, they desperately needed to restock. The Lightning were able to convert the San Jose 2nd round pick as well as the 2nd round pick they received from Philadelphia for Andrei Meszaros in 2010, and a 3rd round pick in 2013 for Lindback, Kyle Wilson (a potential 3rd line NHL center who becomes a UFA at the end of this season) and a 7th round pick in 2012 that was used to select Nikita Gusev, an elite-level skilled forward who tied Nail Yakupov in scoring at the World Juniors, but fell due to questions about size and willingness to play in North America. In the end, the trade that returned Anders Lindback, there likely future goaltender, a useful depth center and potential top-six winger cost Yzerman Andrei Meszaros, Dominic Moore, and a 2013 3rd round pick. The two picks that were relinquished were used on Pontus Aberg (37th) and Colton Sissons (50th).
A similar example would be his trading of Steve Downie for Kyle Quincey who then was almost immediately traded to Detroit for Sebastien Piche (an AHL defenseman) and the 1st round pick that was used on another strong goaltending prospect in Andrei Vasilevski. Essentially Yzerman is making himself a sort of NHL middle-man, taking a profitable cut in any trades that directly serve the goals of the franchise at this time, while funnelling to the teams in need the players they desire.
This is Yzerman’s strength.
His weakness thus far might be in failing to make appropriate contingency plans. This past season he entered the year with Dwayne Roloson as his starting goaltender. Roloson had served admirably during the previous year’s playoff run but was widely considered, and rightly so this time, to be unable to shoulder the burden for this team all season long. His backup was Mathieu Garon, recreating a scene Oilers’ fans will remember vividly. It failed and the Lightning fell to 21st in the league, overall. To put it in the lingo of the kids these days: epic fail.
Tampa Bay had one of the most notable development systems in the league last year due to an incredible late-season run of wins (28), including a Calder Cup, by the Norfolk Admirals. Head Coach Jon Cooper, who was hired under Yzerman’s watch, got a lot of attention this off-season with his name coming up in the conversation for head coaching jobs in Edmonton, Calgary, Washington, and elsewhere.
At the end of last season, the Lightning signed a new affiliation agreement with the Syracuse Crunch. Cooper remains the coach for the Lightning’s AHL affiliate.
Yzerman is a highly intelligent individual and has spent years studying the game with the intention of moving into a management role. On that point, we can assume that to some extent mistakes he makes are not likely to become a pattern of behaviour, except in cases of oversight or miscalculation.
Before you accuse me of giving him too much credit or allowing him too generous a share of benefit of doubt, I have gone on record as saying that I am not willing to merely hand Yzerman the mantle of a top NHL GM because of his excellent career as a player or his time working in the Detroit Red Wings organization. Rather, I have argued that he needs to be given ample time to prove himself, outside of the Hockey Canada environment, in the cut-throat world of the NHL where the pragmatic realities of budgets, free-agency, ticket sales, agents and ownership often greatly impact the managerial strategy.
Today, I would probably put Yzerman in the middle of the pack, maybe slightly ahead, when it comes to NHL management performance. He has made some good moves and some bad ones, he hasn’t been around long enough to really excel, but neither has he had enough time to pull a really boneheaded move. After five or eight years perhaps we’ll be able to say a little more.
The Bond Villain Behind the Bench
Guy Boucher was, in 2009, what Jon Cooper was in 2012 – the brilliant young coach that everybody wanted to sign. He turned down Columbus and chose Tampa Bay, in part because he wanted to work with Yzerman. Boucher’s record made him a very attractive candidate. In his first year coaching the Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens) he led the team to an impressive 52-17-11 record, in the face of numerous call-ups due to injury. He coached the Canadian Men’s U-17 hockey team in 2006, 2007 and 2008, winning gold in ’08. Boucher is still considered an excellent tactician and hockey mind, although his team suffered a significant setback last season and it remains to be seen how he can maneuver a rebound year from his current roster.
Where Does Tampa Bay Stand Now?
(Photo: Resolute/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Well, Lecavalier is signed until 2020, when he’ll be 42 years-old (yes, another one of those deals). It was this contract, negotiated and pushed for by Koules and Barrie, over which Jay Feaster resigned his position citing untenable interference by ownership. Martin St. Louis is signed for two more seasons after this one, when he’ll be 40. Yzerman negotiated that one. These two players are the buffer. They straddle the line between the old and the new and help to lessen some of the load, along with Ohlund and Brewer, on those that are coming up afterwards. The younger core of the team is obviously made up of Hedman, Stamkos, Matt Carle, Teddy Purcell and, eventually, Connolly. Lindback is likely to join that group, once play begins and he is given a chance to prove if he can be a starter in the NHL. Players like Namestnikov and Barberio are not far behind.
With those players in place, the Lightning’s prospect depth at center, wing, defence, and net has put them in an admirable position, where they have identified their core group and can now allow it to solidify at the NHL level while patiently waiting out the remaining expiring free-agent contracts on the support players and replacing them with their graduating prospects to create an even more potent roster. A roster in which those young players can be sheltered and complemented by the core group now entering its prime.
Where Am I Going With This?
Yzerman didn’t draft Stamkos. Nor did he select Victor Hedman. He didn’t sign Lecavalier to that ridiculous contract. But he did re-sign St. Louis to a 4-year extension at a very affordable price. He retained Stamkos for another five years, as well as Hedman. He has been fortunate in having inherited a talented roster with a fair bit of innate potential. His own shrewd management has added to that roster and potential. He’s also been a bit lucky at the draft table. Ownership of the team is more stable now than at any time in it’s history, and indeed, perhaps more stable than many other NHL franchises. The management group assembled is interesting and appears to be well thought out. It boasts a couple of ex-players, though doesn’t giving the impression of an old boys’ club. Along with Yzerman there is Tom Kurvers, senior advisor to the GM, and Pat Verbeek, assistant GM and director of player personnel. Verbeek comes to Tampa Bay from Detroit, where he was their pro scout for several years. In addition to these three, Al Murray, formerly head scout for Hockey Canada’s men’s junior teams, and Greg Malone, a former scout for the Pittsburgh Penguins who oversaw that teams’ drafting from Jaromir Jagr to Evgeni Malkin. That is a strong collection of accomplished hockey minds and it would seem that Yzerman took at least one lesson from Detroit to heart: surround yourself with smart hockey people and let them advise you.
The Lightning have an enviable balance of talent in their roster and prospect group. I have to admit, there are many areas of their organization that I feel may be superior to the Oilers.
I expect that the Lightning have today the potential to add another Stanley Cup banner to their rafters sometime in the next five or six years. There’s a long list of things that have to go right, and management needs to help themselves out along the way, but when you look at the pieces they have, what appears to be coming along the way, the way that talent is accompanied by depth in the system, a very wealthy and apparently patient owner, as well as grooming a young potential NHL coach behind another hot-shot young coach, this team would appear to have a bright future.
Getting Back to What’s Important – Us
The Flames are tied to the Lightning by historical circumstance, like it or not. Tampa Bay broke their hearts in 2004, and then a few years later the Flames gave refuge to their ousted GM. Today, Calgary is being led by the man who was, at the time, credited with orchestrating their bitter defeat. To that end, some of the obstacles facing Yzerman when he took the job are the result of the decisions made by Feaster during his time there. Obviously not the Lecavalier contract, but the depleted goaltending depth and poor returns or none at all on several key veteran departures such as Brad Richards, Dan Boyle and Nikolai Khabibulin. At the same time, Yzerman has benefited from the results of some of Feaster’s decisions, albeit inadvertently, in Steven Stamkos and arguably also Victor Hedman. The template and history for comparison are there, fans can study them and judge for themselves. Perhaps it would be best to begin asking, what decisions might Feaster make in Calgary that will either hinder or help his eventual successor?
As for the Oilers? The stuttering and uneven ascension of the Lightning following their picks of Stamkos and Hedman ought to demonstrate that there is a long road ahead. Tampa Bay plays in what is often considered the weakest division in the NHL (although the Northwest could argue recently to have claimed that title) and still struggles to make the playoffs. That aside, with good scouting and some astute trades they have continued to add to their prospect depth and talent pool. To date, the Oilers have been reluctant to acquire young assets outside of the draft. This method will surely need to change as a quick comparison of the two prospect pools shows that by trading some assets, or by at least helping to coordinate the shifting of players between teams, a more balanced and deliberate talent pool can be accumulated. Tampa Bay may not have as many potential star players available, although as with anything in prognostication we shall have to wait and see, but they certainly have all of their bases covered when it comes to high-end talent at a variety of positions. This means that if and when (more likely the latter) the team makes the post-season, they may be well- equipped to adapt and overcome their opponents by virtue of a variety of strengths.
We will have to wait to see whether Yzerman’s first job becomes a sign of good things to come, or a bad omen.