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'No stone unturned': Steve Yzerman's Tampa Bay blueprint gives Red Wings fans hope

Mark Falkner
The Detroit News

Steve Yzerman wasn’t much for stealing the spotlight during his 22-year playing career in Detroit. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first-year general manager is scheduled to pass on attending Sunday’s first game in Tampa since he left the powerhouse Lightning for the rebuilding Red Wings.

In typical Yzerman fashion, he plans on working behind the scenes at the under-20 World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic, trying to lay the foundation for the kind of successful playoff runs Red Wings fans were accustomed to before this year’s dramatic drop into last place in the standings.

Steve Yzerman, here talking with Lightning assistant coach Wayne Fleming in 2011, led the Lightning to the playoffs six times in nine seasons.

Sunday’s game will give fans in Hockeytown a glimpse of what an Yzerman-built team and organization might look like and how his reliance on the NHL draft to accumulate top-notch players like Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov and Vezina Trophy winner Alexei Vasilevskiy — as well as undervalued players like Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat — offers hope for one of Detroit’s four floundering franchises.

“Steve has a clear vision of the type of team he wants,” said Julien BriseBois, who worked with Yzerman for eight years as assistant GM, then last year as general manager when Yzerman stepped down to take a senior advisor role.

“He wants a skilled, fast team with guys who can play with pace, who have a foundation of skill, skating and hockey sense. It doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, Russian, American, Swede. As long as you could play fast-paced, skilled hockey, you would be on our list and if you were the next guy on our list, we would pick you.”

Few teams drafted as well from top to bottom than the Lightning from 2010-19.

Led by head scout Al Murray, who was one of Yzerman’s first hires after working together at Hockey Canada, Tampa Bay recorded more wins and goals than any other team since 2013 with forwards bypassed by other teams like Kucherov (second round), Point (third round), Anthony Cirelli (third round), Alex Killorn (third round), Cedric Paquette (fourth round), Palat (seventh round) and free agents Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde.

Steve Yzerman poses with the NHL General Manager of the Year Award trophy in 2015.

They also upgraded the defense by trading top draft picks like Jonathan Drouin (first round) for Mikhail Sergachev; Vladislav Namestnikov (first round) for Ryan McDonagh; and Radko Gudas (third round) for Braydon Coburn. And they solidified the goaltending position in the first round by selecting Vasilevskiy, who led Russia to a silver medal at the 2012 world championships with a 4-1 record and .953 save percentage.

“They just picked apart the amateur draft from rounds three to seven,” St. Louis Blues TV analyst Darren Pang said. “They believed as long as a smaller player like Brayden Point could play and was competitive and didn’t play on the perimeter, they took him. They did a great job of managing the draft.”

‘Very competitive’

Yzerman’s results in Tampa Bay speak for themselves.

Since being hired by billionaire owner Jeff Vinik in 2010, the Lightning made the playoffs in six of nine seasons, were the only team to advance to the conference finals in three of four seasons, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, and they tied the league record for most wins in a season (62) held by the 1995-96 Red Wings.

Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman holds the Stanley Cup aloft while celebrating with teammates at center ice after sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1997 NHL Finals.

In Detroit, Yzerman won four Stanley Cups in 26 years, three as the captain (1997, 1998, 2002) and the fourth in 2008 during his four-year apprenticeship as vice president and alternate governor.

“Considering his illustrious background and who he is and what he means to this game, I was just as impressed by his humility, curiosity, and eagerness to learn when I first met him at a governor’s meeting,” said BriseBois, a former Montreal lawyer who worked for nine years with the Canadiens under general managers Andre Savard and Bob Gainey.

“He won’t leave any stone unturned. He’ll investigate to see if his original position was correct and then act accordingly. He might feel he’s fairly conservative in some areas but I consider him progressive, open-minded, and very competitive.”

BriseBois said Yzerman’s competitiveness and experience as a player and executive in Detroit helped build Tampa Bay into a “strong, sustainable, winning program.”

“One of the things that Steve and I agreed on when we were getting to know each other and sharing thoughts on how we should run a hockey team was stability,” BriseBois said. “You look at our organization when Steve was here. We had one coaching change and there wasn’t much turnover in the amateur and pro scouting departments. 

“We hired good people who worked hard and understood what we were trying to do. There was no change for the sake of change. 

“Our owner supported us with the proper resources to be successful. Of course, there’s luck involved in every sport with the draft but we had a clear vision of the type of team we wanted to become.”

The one coaching change occurred in 2013 when Guy Boucher was replaced by Jon Cooper, the longest tenured coach in the NHL now, but at the time a former Michigan lawyer who led their AHL affiliate in Norfolk to a Calder Cup title.

Cooper was hired over former Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, whom Yzerman added to the coaching staff with Canada’s gold-medal team in 2010.

“We did our due diligence but never really considered any other coach,” BriseBois said. “Jon was the best guy for the job. He got our minor league team to play the style of game we wanted to play. He won at every level and is a great leader with a lot of charisma. He grew up with the players that were going to be part of our team.”

Then-Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman answers questions during a press conference in 2017.

Some of the foundational moves in Tampa Bay are similar to Yzerman’s decisions in the first eight months on the job in Detroit. 

On the scouting side, Yzerman’s first hire was former Lightning assistant general manager Pat Verbeek and they quickly replaced director of amateur scouting Tyler Wright with emerging talent evaluator and former Grind Line center Kris Draper in one of the most important changes in his revamped front office.

‘You need good contracts’

Behind the bench, Yzerman has supported Blashill for continuing to develop young players like Tyler Bertuzzi, Anthony Mantha and Filip Hronek and, in his first public comments about Blashill in April, he praised Blashill for the “excellent job” he did in Grand Rapids in 2013 by beating his Syracuse team in the AHL final.

BriseBois said one of the biggest challenges they had in Tampa Bay was handling the salary cap.

“You can’t end up in a situation where players are underperforming to the cap space they’re using,” BriseBois said. “You need good contracts in a cap world. We had the advantage of keeping money in our pocket because of a better taxation situation in Florida and a lower cost of living. 

“Steve Stamkos and Victor Hedman set the tone with their contracts by saying, ‘This is how it is done here.’ By having players buy in, it makes it more likely they can play on a team that ends up in a winning situation, year in and year out.”

The Red Wings have a number of restricted free agents who are in for raises this year, including Mantha ($3.3 million in 2019), Andreas Athanasiou ($3 million) and Bertuzzi ($1.4 million). Dylan Larkin is the highest paid player on the team at $6.1 million.

No matter who Yzerman signs or for how long, NBC analyst Ed Olczyk said Yzerman has “built up so much equity in Detroit” that fans will likely be patient as he tries to repeat his success in Tampa.

“In any rebuild, you have to sell hope not only in the dressing room but to your fan base,” Olczyk said. “The players in the dressing room aren’t worried about 2-3 years down the road. They want to win right now. It’s a tough balance. How long will this rebuild take? Steve is going to have to figure that out.”

As for BriseBois, he wishes he could’ve figured out a way to have his name on the Stanley Cup with Yzerman. As the clock was ticking down in Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs last year and the Lightning were about to be swept in Columbus, BriseBois said he and Yzerman knew their time together was just about over.

“I knew he was leaving (to Detroit),” BriseBois said of Vinik’s decision to allow the Red Wings to talk to Yzerman in March. “It hurt bad enough to have that much success in the regular season and lose in that fashion and not put our best foot forward. It would’ve meant a lot to me to see him win the Cup again.

“I don’t know if people outside this industry know how that Cup drives us. Every decision gets us closer to that goal.”


Twitter: @falkner

Top 5 draft picks under Yzerman

(Tampa Bay selections from 2010-2019)

1. Center Nikita Kucherov

►Second-round pick in 2011 with 499 points in 480 games.

►Detroit had three second-round picks before Kucherov was taken 58th overall: Tomas Jurco (35th), Xavier Ouellet (48th), Ryan Sproul (55th).

2. Center Brayden Point

►Third-round pick in 2014 with 224 points in 260 games.

►Detroit took Portland's 10-goal scorer Dominic Turgeon (63rd) in the Western Hockey League instead of Moose Jaw's 36-goal scorer Point (79th).

3. Left winger Ondrej Palat

►Seventh-round pick in 2011 with 306 points in 461 games.

►Detroit's seventh-round pick (205th) was defenseman Alexey Marchenko, who had 21 career points in 121 career games instead of Palat (208th).

4. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy

►First-round pick in 2012 with 138-68-17 record and 2.59 GAA in 233 games.

►Detroit acquired defenseman Kyle Quincey from Tampa Bay in exchange for the 19th pick in the first round used to take the future Vezina Trophy winner.

5. Winger Anthony Cirelli

►Third-round pick in 2015 with 72 points in 133 games.

Detroit's only player from the 2015 draft to play in the NHL is forward Evgeny Svechnikov with four points in 20 career games.

Yzerman with Lightning

Steve Yzerman's nine years in Tampa Bay (2010-2019):

2018-19: 62-16-4, 128 points (First-round loss)

2017-18: 54-23-5, 113 points (Conference final loss)

2016-17: 42-30-10, 94 points (Missed the playoffs)

2015-16: 46-31-5, 97 points (Conference final loss)

2014-15: 50-24-8, 108 points (Cup final loss)

2013-14: 46-27-9, 101 points (First-round loss)

2012-13: 18-26-4, 40 points (Missed the playoffs)

2011-12: 38-36-8, 84 points (Missed the playoffs)

2010-11: 46-25-11, 103 points (Conference final loss)

►Yzerman was general manager from 2010-18 and senior advisor to GM Julien BriseBois in 2018-19.