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Bolts current success traces roots back to 2011

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

On the ice in May 2011, the Tampa Bay Lightning were one win away from a Stanley Cup Final.

Meanwhile, behind closed doors within the inner sanctum of Lightning headquarters at Amalie Arena (then St. Pete Times Forum), Bolts management was crafting the blueprint for a long-term vision of prosperity, manifested in the team’s current Cup run.

Steve Yzerman joined the Lightning as vice president and general manager on May 25, 2010, after spending the previous four seasons as vice president of the Detroit Red Wings, where he won his fourth Stanley Cup and first as an executive in 2008.

Following three-straight seasons of not making the playoffs, Tampa Bay set a then-franchise record for regular season wins (46) in Yzerman’s first year at the helm in 2010-11. The Lightning rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit against Pittsburgh in the opening round of the playoffs, winning Game 7 on the road, the team’s first playoff series win since the 2004 Stanley Cup season. The Bolts swept the top-seeded Washington Capitals in the next round and took the Boston Bruins to seven games in the Eastern Conference Final before losing 1-0.

But the Lightning weren’t set up for sustained success.

In the seasons that followed, Yzerman set about retooling the team, trimming the roster of salary cap-straining contracts and developing talent from within the organization.

The team’s play on the ice suffered as a result. The Lightning failed to qualify for the postseason a year after making it to the ECF. In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, the Lightning fired head coach Guy Boucher after 32 games, replacing Boucher with relatively unknown AHL coach Jon Cooper, who had considerable success with the Lightning’s minor league affiliates in Norfolk and Syracuse but no NHL experience.

The Lightning again missed out on the playoffs in 2012-13.

“I was one of the new faces that was brought in after that 2011-12 season,” said Lightning defenseman Matt Carle, who signed as a free agent on July 4, 2012, after playing the previous four seasons in Philadelphia. “That first year was a tough season to go through. It was a lockout year, so it was a half year. But we knew Steve was doing things the right way and trying to build from within.”

Yzerman’s first big splash came during the 2011 NHL Draft and subsequent free agency. While the Lightning were enjoying short-term success on the ice, Yzerman was laying the foundation for the years ahead, using the Detroit organization and its North American major sports record 24-season playoff appearance streak as the template.

In that 2011 Draft, Yzerman selected two-thirds of the famed Triplets line, picking Nikita Kucherov in the second round (58th overall) and Ondrej Palat in the seventh (208th).

“If we had known Ondrej was going to be that good, we wouldn’t have waited until the seventh round to get him,” Yzerman said.

The Lightning also drafted Nikita Nesterov, who made his NHL debut midway through the 2014-15 season and has been a highly-valuable seventh defenseman for the team since, in the fifth round and used their first-round pick on Vladislav Namestnikov, a highly-skilled center who scored nine goals and added seven assists playing roughly half the 2014-15 season with the Bolts.

Also from that 2011 Draft, Tampa Bay selected valued prospects G Adam Wilcox in the sixth round (178th) and F Matthew Peca in the seventh (201st).

Before the draft, Yzerman made perhaps his shrewdest move, signing undersized WHL standout Tyler Johnson to a free agent contract on March 7, 2011.

“I really look back at any team that’s gotten to this point or any team that’s had any kind of long-term sustained success, it’s really through homegrown talent,” Yzerman said while sitting on a podium with Cooper during the NHL’s Stanley Cup Media Day on Tuesday. “It’s just impossible, even more so with the salary cap to try and really build a team to be successful over a period of time through just free agency and trades. You need the assets to build a team. I think Al Murray [director of amateur scouting] and our amateur scouting staff has done a very good job at finding players.”

The Lightning began to reap the benefits of that 2011 Draft/free agency period in 2013-14, when the team returned to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus.

A season later, the Lightning are on the verge of hoisting their second Stanley Cup, having won a franchise-best 50 games in the regular season, defeating Detroit in seven games in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, knocking off Montreal in six in the Second Round and outlasting the Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final.

Tampa Bay will play the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final, Game 1 tonight at Amalie Arena (8 p.m. puck drop).

“If you’d asked me last September if we were going to be (in the Stanley Cup Final), I hoped to but it certainly wasn’t necessarily planned that way,” Yzerman said. “There was no timeline at all. We had to go through this process and hopefully get there sooner than later.”

The Lightning have gotten there mostly through homegrown talent, procured through the draft or by signing undrafted players and developed in the minor leagues, combined with the measured signing of experienced free agents to help plug the holes.

“You learn how to become a pro in the AHL,” said defenseman Mark Barberio, who was a 2008 sixth round draft pick (152nd) of the Lightning that spent three seasons in the Bolts minor league system before getting a late-season NHL callup in 2012-13. “The talent level and the skill level is different from the AHL and the NHL. The game here is obviously faster, but going into a couple playoff runs in the AHL still prepares you pretty well for the NHL grind. It’s the same kind of battle. Guys are blocking shots, playing hurt. You’ve got to learn how to deal with that in the AHL for when you get to this level.”

Just two players – Lightning captain Steven Stamkos and top defenseman Victor Hedman – remain on the Lightning roster from that Eastern Conference finalist team in 2010-11, Yzerman’s first as general manager.

The Triplets have emerged as perhaps the NHL’s most prolific line, a lethal combination of speed and skill that has generated the bulk of the Bolts offense throughout the regular season and carried over into the postseason.

“When (Palat and Johnson) got a chance a couple years ago and we were kind of out of the mix and they came up and played a couple games at the end of the year, you could see the potential,” Stamkos said. “You look at Kucherov, he was a healthy scratch last year in the playoffs, but those guys are willing to do whatever it takes to play at this level and he’s obviously been a huge part of our team…It’s still remarkable to see what they’ve been able to do in such short time.”

In many ways, the Lightning in their current state mirror Chicago at the beginning of the Blackhawks’ sustained run of success.

Before the 2008-09 season, Chicago had gone five-straight years without making the postseason. In 2008-09, the Blackhawks advanced to the Western Conference Final. A year later, they won their fourth Stanley Cup.

Tonight, the Blackhawks will play in their third Stanley Cup Final and have won two Cups (2010, 2013) in the last six seasons.

Behind Yzerman’s calculated wheeling and dealing, the Lightning are also set up for the long haul. Tonight’s Cup appearance isn’t a one-and-done deal for the Lightning.

Yzerman, Cooper and the rest of the organization expect this to be just the beginning of a continued period of prosperity.

“The future’s bright for this organization, and I don’t think it’s on accident,” Carle said. “It starts at the top with the ownership in Mr. Vinik and trickles on down to Steve Yzerman and our coaching staff. Not only do we have young guys here that have been playing well, but our minor league team has young guys that are up and coming.”

As an older guy on this team, it’s fun to watch these young guys.”

And Yzerman has ensured that the Lightning will be a fun group to watch for years to come.

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