TAMPA — Steve Yzerman’s presence looms over the Tampa Bay Lightning, especially their young players — and we mean that in a good way.
The Lightning general manager is developing this team with, well, development. It’s about cultivating players, honing them in the system and then bringing them up to the NHL level, something the Lightning didn’t do enough of in the past. And some of those young players are now part of a Tampa Bay squad that’s off to a solid start in the East.
“I don’t know if I can be in any better situation,” forward Tyler Johnson said. “One of the reasons I ended up signing with Tampa is because he had that philosophy and that’s what he was going to do.”
Yzerman is trying to do in Tampa what his former team, the Detroit Red Wings, have done for years. It’s also been part of the Chicago Blackhawks’ blueprint in their rise back to success and winning two Stanley Cups in the past four seasons. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman says it constantly: you have to develop your own talent, you can’t lean on the free-agent market to build your team. After this Cup season, Bowman largely stayed away from the summer market, focusing on Rockford players who deserved their opportunity to make the big club.
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The squads that have followed that mantra have found sustained success. Yzerman is trying to do the same with the Lightning. And Tampa’s youth is on board with it.
“Steve’s been honest with us,” Tampa Bay defenseman Mark Barberio said. “He said, ‘We want you guys to get your ice time in the American (Hockey) League, develop as players there.’ And when it’s time for us to move up we’re not too shell-shocked or out of place. You get to go out and play hockey and do your job.”
Being in Yzerman’s presence, still, can be humbling. This is a three-time Cup winner who was a captain for more than 1,300 career games. But Johnson said Yzerman’s down-to-earth nature helps.
“It’s kind of nerve-wracking in a way. But he’s an unbelievable guy,” he said. “He’s one of those guys who you look up to so much because of everything he’s done in hockey. At the same time, he doesn’t give that impression to you. He’s very humble. He’s always looking out for you and trying to make you a better player.”
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Developing a team this way, however, does take time. The Blackhawks didn’t reach their current situation with one good draft and one strong developmental season. It was drafting guys like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, drafting and developing players like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Patience isn’t just a virtue in this case; it’s a necessity.
The Lightning are coming off two rough seasons, and when a team struggles, GMs, coaches and others are put on the hot seat. But Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, via the Tampa Tribune, gave Yzerman the thumb’s up heading into this season. The Lightning have already seen minor-league success. The Norfolk Admirals, the team’s previous minor-league affiliate, won the Calder Cup in 2011-12. The Syracuse Crunch, their current AHL affiliate, went to the final last season.
The Lightning are going in the right direction, thanks to Yzerman’s leadership. Like Detroit, like Chicago, it’s all about building from inside the organization, developing players from minor-league hopefuls into NHL stars. Those players have bought in and are seeing results.
“It’s really exciting,” Barberio said. “I think the whole attitude has changed. We’re not going into games just to drop our sticks on the ice. We have a chance to win every night. We have those kind of players on our team. It’s fun to be at the rink.”