Stevie Y's Inheritance
They're not the first place Tampa Bay Lightning anymore, the result of a difficult western road trip that produced three tough losses before returning home to face the Maple Leafs tonight. The scoring dried up, and now head coach Guy Boucher's job is to reset the team's focus with tonight's game followed by road matches in Washington and Pittsburgh.
Still, they are the improved Lightning, and the stabilized Lightning. The Oren Koules-Len Barrie gong show is no more, and new owner Jeff Vinik appears to have steadied the ship. Then again, we've been hearing that ever since Phil Esposito brought the Lightning into being back in the early 1990s.
Somehow, this team won a Stanley Cup in 2004. Now it appears to be on the way back after a series of pretty strange seasons, with Steve Yzerman now the front man for the organization and Steven Stamkos quite clearly the team's marquee player.
The Bolts will still lose buckets of money this season, but the overall tone of what's happening in Tampa seems to be positive, and much of that has to do with Yzerman's presence and sterling reputation in the industry.
That said, much of what Yzerman has been able to accomplish in the first quarter of the season was because of what was accomplished over the previous two seasons by the former GM, Brian Lawton, who was fired at the end of last season by Vinik.
This, of course, is not a new story. Brian Burke won a title in Anaheim partly on the basis of what Bryan Murray put in place. Dale Tallon received a Stanley Cup ring from the Blackhawks this fall even though he's now GM in Florida. It was Chicago management's way of acknowledging the fact that Tallon built the team that Stan Bowman won with. People in Pittsburgh will tell you Dan Bylsma coached the Penguins to the Cup, but it was much of what Michel Therrien put in place that paved the way.
In a sport in which management and coaches change frequently, this is the way it works.
Yzerman has made a few moves in Tampa, although the most notable, trading for Simon Gagne, has thus far been completely unproductive. Additions of players like Dominic Moore, Brett Clark, Sean Bergenheim and goalie Dan Ellis have helped.
Really, he's benefitted from the stability of a deep-pocketed new owner and the foundation established by Lawton, particularly in getting the Lightning on the same draft-and-develop path as the Penguins, Capitals, Blackhawks, Kings and Blues while Yzerman was constructing what would be Canada's gold medal winning team at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Lawton, remember, drafted both Stamkos and Victor Hedman. Maybe they were no-brainers, but Lawton did resist temptation to move first round picks for immediate help in a effort to save his job. He was authorized to make a big move at last winter's trade deadline, but decided against it and held on to his first round selection, which Yzerman then used to draft intriguing Brett Connolly of Prince George with the No. 6 selection.
Solid Lawton draftees like Carter Ashton - a second first round pick in the Hedman draft - and Richard Panik remain in the Tampa organization.
Lawton also made the deal that brought Steve Downie to town for defenceman Matt Carle. Carle played well for Philly last year on a team that went to the Cup final, but Downie is now on Tampa's first line with Stamkos and Marty St. Louis. So it's entirely arguable that the Lightning were on the right path before Yzerman arrived, and now he's doing well with a flexible roster that had already been whittled down to 28 contracts and generates one of the lowest payrolls in the league.
What worked against Lawton? Well, the mysterious decision of defenceman Paul Ranger to disappear from hockey - he didn't sign a qualifying offer last summer, hasn't returned this season - robbed the team of one of its better young players. The ownership of Koules and Barrie was a disaster to the point NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had to summon them to league offices last year and convince them to play nice together, at least for public consumption. It was that ownership tandem, before they stopped getting along, that signed Vinny Lecavalier to a contract that makes him all but untradeable, dealt Dan Boyle to San Jose in an awful deal - Boyle still calls the pair "poison" - and hired Barry Melrose to coach the team, which turned out to be utter farce.
Lawton was then forced to accept Melrose's assistant, Rick Tocchet, and that didn't work either. The GM wanted to fire Tocchet partway through last season but wasn't allowed to, and now the Lightning are showing the benefits of quality coaching, with Yzerman given the authority to hire the highly-touted Boucher.
"I'm very proud of the job we did in Tampa," said Lawton from his Minnesota home this week. "Everyone in the league knew and could see the ownership issues we had but our staff always remained focussed on putting together a core group of players.
"We made lot of mistakes over the two years I was there but we called more right than wrong when it came to making decisions. When your two best players are 20 years old the future is bright for your organization."
Yzerman has major challenges, such as the contractual commitment to Lecavalier through to the summer of 2020. Ryan Malone has one goal this season and will make $4.5 million through 2015. Plans are already afoot to sign Stamkos, but to what kind of deal? The controversy over Ilya Kovalchuk's deal and other back-sliding contracts have changed the environment. Washington did double-digit terms on both Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but it's not clear whether Tampa will want the same kind of commitment.
And Lawton? It will be interesting to see if he gets another shot at running a team. He's an ambitious, creative guy, and while he has his critics, the situation he left behind in Tampa for Yzerman to work with clearly suggests he had a plan.