Jones: Steve Yzerman maintains his golden touch

Tampa Bay Lightning Vice President and General Manager, Steve Yzerman watches from high above the ice as the Lightning take on the Florida Panthers during first period action at the Amalie Arena in Tampa last year. DIRK SHADD | Times [2015]
Tampa Bay Lightning Vice President and General Manager, Steve Yzerman watches from high above the ice as the Lightning take on the Florida Panthers during first period action at the Amalie Arena in Tampa last year. DIRK SHADD | Times [2015]
Published July 1, 2016

The Lightning's most valuable person doesn't even play. Not anymore.

When he did, he was one of the best hockey players ever. But those days are over. He has traded his hockey sweater for a sports jacket, his stick and gloves for a spread sheet and a calculator.

His impact on the game, however, is as strong as ever, as important as any wrist shot or slick pass. The Hall of Fame player is turning into a Hall of Fame general manager.

And what a week he has had.

Steve Yzerman's steady hand has built the Lightning into one of hockey's strongest organizations. And his presence was especially felt Wednesday as his patience, focus and determination enabled Tampa Bay to land the biggest fish in this year's free agent pool. It just happened to be the Lightning's captain and star, Steven Stamkos.

Negotiations on a new deal lasted a year. So did the sleepless nights. By all accounts, the talks never got contentious, but they were never easy, either.

Through it all, Yzerman never blinked. He never wavered. He never lost his cool. He worked hard behind the scenes. He continued to respect the process, respect Stamkos, confident that however it turned out, he was doing what was best for the organization.

"I really wasn't sure what would happen,'' Yzerman said.

But he knew that he had made a fair offer — eight years, $68 million — and ultimately, Stamkos agreed.

Now it's over, and two things are abundantly clear: The Lightning is lucky to have Stamkos and just as lucky to have Yzerman.

"It boils down to respect for Steve,'' Stamkos said Thursday about the contract talks.

Neither Stamkos nor Yzerman negotiated through the media, not even in a wink-wink, read-between-the-lines sort of way. It just goes to show how much respect the sides have for one another.

"There was no need for that stuff getting out,'' Stamkos said.

And you better believe that Stamkos took note of Yzerman's conduct throughout, another reason he knew he was making the right decision to stay in Tampa Bay.

"Absolutely,'' Stamkos said. "The Lightning has been nothing but first class, and of course, that factors into it.''

The Stamkos signing is just the latest obstacle Yzerman has been able to overcome in his incredibly eventful six-year stint as the Lightning's general manager.

Think of all that Yzerman has been through.

He hired a good coach in Guy Boucher and then fired that coach to hire an even better one in Jon Cooper. How has that worked out?

He once traded a hot young star named Cory Conacher for a goalie named Ben Bishop. How has that worked out?

He bought out the contract of the most popular player in franchise history, captain Vinny Lecavalier, but did it in such a classy way that Lecavalier left with no bitterness.

He then had to part ways with another captain, Marty St. Louis, when St. Louis demanded a trade. Though he was stuck negotiating with only one team, Yzerman managed to deal St. Louis to that team and get back a solid player in Ryan Callahan and draft picks.

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Then came last season, Yzerman's best as a GM.

While wading through the snail's-pace process of the Stamkos talks, Yzerman was faced with his most challenging situation yet: 2013 first-round draft pick Jonathan Drouin publicly demanded a trade after being sent to the minors.

Again, Yzerman stood his ground. He could have given away Drouin for almost nothing just to get rid of the distraction. He could have sent a message that no kid was going to tell him how to run his organization and let the player rot at home after Drouin refused to play in the minors.

Instead, Yzerman listened to trade offers, then made the hardest decision of all: to keep Drouin and leave the door open for his return.

Drouin did return, and after a good playoff run, he has withdrawn his request and looks to be a key part of the Lightning's future.

All because of how Yzerman handled his situation.

"Being general manager in any sport is an extremely difficult job,'' Yzerman said. "You're constantly having to make decisions sometimes between two very good options and sometimes between options you don't really like. You just try to deal with the situations.

"You mentioned some of the things we've been up against or had to deal with over the last few years, and I look back and try to evaluate, 'What could I have done differently? How could I have handled these situations better?' ''

Honestly, what decision has he blown? Everything he touches turns to gold. And eventually they have a good chance of turning to silver, as in the silver Stanley Cup. The Lightning has come close to winning it the past two seasons, and assuming Yzerman can navigate the salary cap and keep this bunch together, more Cup runs are coming.

Along the way, maybe he will enjoy the job.

"You know what's really fun, honestly?'' Yzerman said. "When the games are played, and particularly in the playoffs and you see the way some nights your team plays. And you win overtime games and you win a series, and that's when you really feel good about the position and you feel good about what you're doing.

"But along the way, I think it's safe to say I've got more gray hair than I did when I joined the organization.''

If the Lightning is lucky, Yzerman's hair will turn an old man's white long before he is done running the franchise.