Jones: Steve Yzerman's plan for getting the Lightning back into the playoffs

If the Lightning season started right now, would Steve Yzerman be happy with what he has? "We're still a couple of players short,'' Yzerman said.. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
If the Lightning season started right now, would Steve Yzerman be happy with what he has? "We're still a couple of players short,'' Yzerman said.. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published June 28 2017
Updated June 29 2017

BRANDON — Seems like forever since the Lightning played a game.

That's what happens when you miss the playoffs.

Here's what else happens when you miss the playoffs: You can't help but wonder when you're going to get back to them again.

For the first time in a long time, serious questions surround the Lightning. A year ago at this time, the Lightning was full of confidence, an NHL powerhouse that seemed on the verge of hoisting the Stanley Cup. It was only a matter of time.

That's not the same vibe the Lightning has these days.

"We're in a different spot today than a year ago,'' Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said Wednesday. "Because a year ago, we were coming off Game 7 of the conference final, and that was coming off reaching the Stanley Cup final. This year we didn't make the playoffs. So let's take a step back here and let's not talk about going for it here in June when we just missed the playoffs.''

How's that for a cold dose of reality? Hey, give Yzerman credit. He's not acting as if all is well.

"Let's improve our team to ensure we get back into the playoffs,'' he said during a break at the Lightning's prospect development camp.

So how does he do it?

It would be easy to simply dismiss last season as a case of bad luck. The Lightning lost captain Steven Stamkos and gritty leader Ryan Callahan to health problems for most of the season. It went through the uneasy transition of turning the goaltending reigns over from veteran Ben Bishop to kid Andrei Vasilevskiy. It made several trade-deadline deals, parting with reliable veterans and turning to prospects up from the minors.

And Tampa Bay still finished with 94 points — one shy of a playoff spot and the same number of points that Stanley Cup finalist Nashville had. You have to think that was going through Yzerman's mind as he watched the playoffs. His team should have been there.

"Should have been there, but we weren't,'' Yzerman said.

If Stamkos had played just five more games, you don't think the Lightning would have picked up at least a point or two more?

"We're a better team with Stamkos, obviously,'' Yzerman said.

But that's the tough spot Yzerman is in now. Do you keep things relatively status quo, believing that the return of Stamkos from knee surgery and, perhaps, Callahan from hip problems will be enough to push the Lightning back into the playoffs? Or do you look deeper and see if it didn't make the playoffs for other reasons?

"We definitely can look at areas where we need to improve with the players we did have on the ice,'' Yzerman said. "Those are the things I can try to address: identify what the issues were from what we saw and try to improve upon it.''

That has already started, with the blockbuster — and somewhat controversial — trade that sent dynamic forward Jonathan Drouin to Montreal for 19-year-old defenseman Mikhail Sergachev this month. Drouin had a breakout year last season and might be on the cusp of being an elite scorer. Meantime, Yzerman admits that Sergachev might not be ready to start next season in the NHL.

But this is part of Yzerman's philosophy. His plan has never changed. He wants the Lightning to be good and stay good. He wants to win now and next year and the year after that. That's why he traded for Sergachev.

"I think it's going to be good for a long time,'' Yzerman said.

Yzerman likes his mix now, a good blend of established stars such as Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman, and a promising group of youngsters led by Sergachev and Brayden Point.

But if the Lightning season started right now, would Yzerman be happy with what he has?

"We're still a couple of players short,'' he said.

Those players could come in a trade. Or free agency. Or the organization.

Or all the above.

The Lightning could use another defenseman. It needs a few forwards to fill out the third and fourth lines. Most of all, it needs a healthy Stamkos. The next few weeks will be busy for Yzerman.

It's his job this long summer to fix the Lightning so that next summer is a whole lot shorter.