Tampa Calls On A Detroit Legend

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - June 09, 2010
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Steve Yzerman was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 1983 to help a once-proud franchise regain its past glory. In 2010, he is being asked to do the same thing - minus the once-proud franchise part.

Outside of its lone Stanley Cup, the Tampa Bay Lightning has had only five winning seasons in its 17 years of existence, including twice finishing last in the easier Eastern Conference and climbing no higher than seventh in any season since raising the cup in 2004. It’s a record of futility the new Lightning general manager knows well. Prior to his arrival, the Dead Wings, as they were not-so-lovingly called, reached the playoffs only twice in 16 years. Three years later, they were in the conference finals. Tampa could make a similar move.

The Lightning have some talent. They just couldn’t win or play defense, which meant that head coach Rick Tocchet and former GM Brian Lawton had to go.

Martin St. Louis, at 35, is still one of the league’s best scorers, and the team has a pair of youngsters around whom Yzerman will try to build a contender. Forward Steven Stamkos is just 20 and tied Sidney Crosby for the league lead in goals and finished fourth in points. Victor Hedman is 19, big (6-foot-6) and one of the best young defensemen in the game. Vincent Lecavalier, whose production has slid in the past couple years, is a bit of a mystery but will be key in Tampa’s success. And he’d better play well. The center is locked up for a decade-long cap hit, which the team may be forced to swallow if he doesn’t regain form and become too expensive to pay or trade.

Tampa also has the sixth pick in a deep draft that should bolster its defense two or three years down the road, and $17 million in cap room, which will allow for some off-season shopping - likely on goaltending if they can’t get help in a trade.

The Lightning’s two-headed goaltending monster - a very accurate label - of Mike Smith and Antero Niittymaki has been totally inadequate. Niittymaki was 17th in goals against average and 13th in save percentage, while Smith was even worse at 21 and 22, respectively. Montreal has to make a decision on netminders Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak, who split the duties during the regular season. Halak’s postseason performance cements him at No. 1 for the time being. Which means Price, who is a restricted free agent, could be expendable. But at just 22 years old, the former first-round pick may be worth keeping.

But before Yzerman starts spending cap cash, he has to find a coach and an assistant who can spot talent, manage the budget and implement a style of play that stresses chemistry and team defense. Don’t be surprised if he raids the Wings’ closet to fill the holes just as he did as executive director of Team Canada, which included Detroit head coach Mike Babcock and GM and executive vice president Ken Holland. He’s gotten permission to talk with Ryan Martin, whose creative use of cap space allowed Detroit to lock up Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen to long-term deals, and who will likely be promoted to assistant GM.

The head coach also may have a familiar feel - three names leading the pack are AHL coach and close pal Kevin Dineen, former team-mate and junior Canadian Hockey League’s coach of the year Gerard Gallant and Wings assistant Paul MacLean.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: Yzerman is in charge. Tampa owner Jeff Vinik said he put off hiring a CEO once he found out Yzerman was available. The new GM handles all on-ice operations and reports directly to the owner. The CEO will handle the boring business details. That’s a lot of responsibility in a first-time GM, but confidence is high. And not just with Vinik.

The third-greatest player of his generation is highly regarded throughout the league and has been biding his time until an offer came. If it wasn’t Tampa, it would have been another NHL team.

Yzerman played under the greatest coach of all time, Scotty Bowman, who convinced his captain to swap scoring for better defense and, as a result, Stanley Cup trophies. Since retiring, he’s been part of professional sports’most consistent franchise and has learned from two of the best front-office people in the league, Holland and senior VP Jimmy Devellano.

Given time, Yzerman will succeed in Tampa. He may even last long enough for a return trip to Detroit.

Which may not make Bolts fans happy, but would send Hockeytown into delirium.

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