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Lightning GM Yzerman's plan happening in fits and starts

Lightning general manager and vice president Steve Yzerman has bolstered the system’s depth, but the results on the ice the past two seasons have been spotty.

DIRK SHADD | Times (2012)

Lightning general manager and vice president Steve Yzerman has bolstered the system’s depth, but the results on the ice the past two seasons have been spotty.

As a hockey player, Steve Yzerman was one of the best the sport has ever seen.

As a hockey general manager? Well, the jury is still out.

It has been a little more than three years since Yzerman took over as general manager of the Lightning and it would be nice to say the team is heading in the right direction. But let's be honest, no one can say that with certainty.

Some days in some areas, things look promising. Other days in other areas, not so much.

The minor-league system is deeper. More young players are joining the lineup. And anytime you have Steven Stamkos, it's not a lost cause.

But there are major concerns, too.

Yzerman is on his second coach and there's no indication the new one is any sharper than the old one. Yzerman's choices to fill the hole in goal have yet to pan out. And the merry-go-round on defense has introduced new defensemen but not necessarily better ones.

Now for the troubling part. It's probably going to get worse before it gets better. The Lightning parted ways with Vinny Lecavalier for financial reasons and doesn't expect any help to come in free agency, which begins this week.

So don't be surprised if the Lightning takes a bit of a step back, at least in the immediate future. And considering Tampa Bay already was near the bottom of the NHL standings, the league might have to add a couple of expansion teams for the Lightning to get much worse.

Yet, Yzerman remains confident in his plan.

"I think, overall, I'm comfortable with the direction we are going,'' Yzerman said Tuesday. "There are always times when, without being specific, where you say, 'I wish we would have done this' or 'I wish we had done that.' But, in general, I'm pleased with the direction we are going.''

What makes Yzerman comfortable and, exactly, what is the plan?

Well, for starters, there is no question the minor-league system is in much better shape than when Yzerman took over. The team's top affiliate won a championship two seasons ago and reached the AHL final last season. Along with head amateur scout Al Murray, Yzerman has done something previous administrations failed to do and that's stock the minors with talent. That talent is starting to show up on the NHL roster and, ultimately, that's how you build a consistently winning team.

"The approach has never changed,'' Yzerman said. "We wanted to draft well and develop young players and gradually add them to our lineup. That's what we're trying to do, and really last season was the first season we started to see a little bit of that. This year, we expect two, three, possibly four young kids to come into the lineup. And each season, we want to gradually add one or two more.''

Let's also not forget the mess Yzerman had to clean up when he got here in 2010. The previous knuckleheads in charge — owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie and GM Brian Lawton — saddled the organization with bad contracts, unsettled coaching and a depleted minor-league system. You could give those cowboys credit for drafting Stamkos and Victor Hedman, but, yeesh, even an actual cowboy living on a ranch in the middle of tumbleweeds could have drafted those two.

Yzerman took over a franchise in disarray and thanks to 41-year-old goalie on the hottest streak of his life, the Lightning made it all the way to the Eastern Conference final in 2011, Yzerman's first full season. That, ultimately, might have been the worst thing that could have happened. The Lightning wasn't nearly as good as that and, yet, expectations were raised to unrealistic proportions.

"We enjoyed that run,'' Yzerman said. "But we knew going forward, with the salary cap, with some of the contracts that we had, that the following season was going to be difficult.''

And now, after two difficult seasons, Yzerman has no choice but to place the organization's short-term future, as well as his own long-term future, on his latest two choices in goal — the young and unproven Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop.

"I have to now be patient and let them play games,'' Yzerman said. "We just have to let these guys play and go through some of the growing pains. But we think they are good goaltenders. … There are no guarantees, but that's the approach we have to take. We just can't be having a revolving door in goal. We can't say, 'Well, this guy didn't work this year, so let's move him out and bring another one.' "

Look, I'm not suggesting that Yzerman is doing a lousy job or that his job is in jeopardy. He, obviously, has a bright hockey mind, and his plan of building through the draft and developing young talent is always preferable to the quick fix of throwing a bunch of money at pricey free agents. The day he was hired, Yzerman said it was going to be a long process.

But this is pro sports. There is always going to be an expiration date on rebuilding plans. We're not at that date yet, but the bottom line is the Lightning hasn't made the playoffs in five of the past six seasons, including the past two under Yzerman.

Though it's clear he has the support of owner Jeff Vinik, even Yzerman admits there is pressure to see a few rays of sunshine in the gray clouds.

"Absolutely,'' he said. "We want to win now. We want to show progress. And all I can do is to continue to try to make the right decisions that make us better and to get us to where we ultimately want to go. We have to show improvement.''

But, Yzerman's definition of improvement might be different than yours or mine. For Yzerman, improvement means solid drafts and a deeper system full of good prospects — players who then come up to the NHL and form the core of a Stanley Cup contender.

"I just have to be patient, keep adding pieces every year and get better,'' Yzerman said. "Ultimately, yeah, there's pressure. I want to do well. We're all competitive. We want to get there sooner rather than later. And it's a difficult process and all I can do is believe in it, stick with it and keep adding good players. And if I do that, we're going to have a good team.''

Unfortunately, even though it's part of Yzerman's master plan, a good team is more likely to come later rather than sooner.

Lightning GM Yzerman's plan happening in fits and starts 07/02/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 8:31am]
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