Steve Yzerman, GM extraordinaire, has Lightning humming at top

General manager Steve Yzerman has worked through one challenge after another (Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis, Jonathan Drouin and others)  to rebuild the Lightning into a contender. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
General manager Steve Yzerman has worked through one challenge after another (Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis, Jonathan Drouin and others) to rebuild the Lightning into a contender. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Dec. 27, 2017

TAMPA —Thursday, the Montreal Canadiens will be at Amalie Arena, Jonathan Drouin included.

The reunion.

The man upstairs will be watching.

No, the other man upstairs.

We're talking about the general manager's box atop the arena and the private general manager inside it: Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, who, quietly as ever, has put together the best team in hockey, with the wins to prove it.

Why even doubt Stevie Y anymore?

The man upstairs hasn't changed much. He appears the same as in 2011, his first year in Tampa Bay, when the Lightning stunned the NHL by coming within a win of a Stanley Cup final. The Lightning is still chasing the Cup. The method remains the same to the man upstairs, as Yzerman, 52, explained during the first intermission of a win over Ottawa last week.

e_SDLqI just want to have a good second period," he said with a smile.

I wouldn't trade any general manager in sports for the guy. I'd love to see what he would do with the locals, that hapless football team, that bargain-basement baseball team. Yzerman might not know a post pattern from a drag bunt, but he knows how to build, how to think ahead, how to keep it quiet, too.

Everything he touches seems to turn to gold, and we don't just mean those two Olympic medals Canada won when Stevie Y ran things.

Take Jo Drouin. Please. Puck's bad boy, a precocious talent, went to the brink with Yzerman. Drouin wanted to go back to Montreal, his hometown. Yzerman eventually made the deal. In return, the Lightning picked up 19-year-old Mikhail Sergachev. Drouin and the Habs are struggling. Sergachev has more goals than Drouin and more points than anyone on Montreal. He looks like a generational offensive defenseman. Only Yzerman could deal a guy to where he wants to go and still make a killing. Classic Stevie Y.

"You try to make decisions," Yzerman said. "I rely heavily on our scouting staff on all the decisions we make. We were looking for an offensive defenseman, a puck-moving defenseman. Those players are hard to find. We gave up a good young forward to get what we thought was going to be a good young defenseman. We watched (Sergachev) in junior and felt like he was going to be a good pro player. And he is."

This is the same Yzerman who replaced Ben Bishop, the best goaltender in Lightning history, with Andre Vasilevskiy … the best goaltender in Lightning history, league leader in wins. This is the same Yzerman who turned what could have been an offseason tempest into the summer of love. Like the signing of Nikita Kucherov in 2016 to a three-year, team-friendly deal. Kucherov, in turn, has been astounding this season. The 24-year-old leads the NHL in goals and points. He looks like the league MVP to me.

And don't forget that everyone assumed Steven Stamkos was gone, Yzerman included, but Stamkos is back, healthy and on his game, to chase the Cup with the Lightning for less money than he could have fetched in, say, Toronto. Stamkos' belief in the organization Yzerman has built had something to do with that.

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Yzerman would like to add depth up front and on defense. And everyone knows the Lightning, like any team, is one injury away from trouble. More bad injury luck for Stamkos, an aching Kucherov knee, a strained Vasilevskiy groin. That's all it would take.

"You learn there are going to be ups and downs," Yzerman said. "You just keep plugging."

But think of all the things the Lightning has been through under Yzerman, from restocking the farm system to buying out Vinny Lecavalier to trading Marty St. Louis to injuries to contract talks to any number of other possible soap operas. Yzerman has made it work, massaging both egos and the salary cap. Through it all, his lips have remained sealed, and that includes the Drouin saga. What happens with the Lightning stays with the Lightning.

"Trust is an important thing," Yzerman said. "If we've got issues, we'll work them out. It doesn't do any good to let them out in public."

He thought about the Drouin deal.

"There are a lot of things I would have done differently during the entire situation, looking back on it. But this was the one deal that made the most sense for us. There's a lot of luck involved at times. It just worked out."

It just worked out.

The man upstairs turned back to the ice. The second period had begun.