While aches and pains have left the Tampa Bay Lightning looking black and blue these days, the team can take solace by adding silver into the mix too.
As in a silver lining to the team’s nagging problem of injuries, which despite serving as a cause of adversity, have also allowed General Manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Guy Boucher to assess the organization’s depth, as more and more players from the club’s top affiliate in Norfolk continue to get the call up to the NHL to fill open roster spaces.
Upon his hiring nearly two years ago, Yzerman laid out his long-term goals for the franchise, which included a firm commitment to restock a minor league system that was significantly shallow largely as a result of the team’s previous history of poor drafting. He knew that while the decision might not necessarily pay immediate dividends, it would provide the organization with stability for the future. Fast forward to today, with the Lightning sitting in a tie for last place in the Eastern Conference standings, and Yzerman still adheres to his long-term plan of utilizing what he has within the organization rather than sacrificing its assets just to achieve a quick fix.
“We're not looking to give up our draft picks and our top prospects,” Yzerman said. “Period.”
“I've been humbled before in this game many times,” he added, “and you just have to believe in yourself and the people around you and you'll get there. You look at teams like Boston and Pittsburgh, they've got depth. They've got assets that give you flexibility, so no matter what, we're not going to sacrifice the future around here.”
In many ways, as a result of the Bolts having six regulars out of the lineup due to injury, the future is happening right now.
So far, JT Wyman, Trevor Smith, Evan Oberg and Pierre-Cedric Labrie have each received the call from Norfolk during the big club’s ongoing stretch of injured players. There’s also Brendan Mikkelson, who was acquired from the Calgary Flames in exchange for Blair Jones, but he too spent significant time in the minors this season.
“Going through all these injuries, we need youth and enthusiasm that these guys can bring,” Lightning assistant coach Dan Lacroix told the Tampa Bay Times. “That’s why you need a good minor league system.”
It appears the Lightning are on their way to having one, with the AHL’s Admirals poised to make the Calder Cup Playoffs for a second consecutive year. But whereas Tampa Bay once had too many forwards on the roster, forcing Boucher to perform a juggling act to decide which players would be in and out of the lineup on a nightly basis, he now has to deal with the difficult task of determining not if the guy is going to play, but where.
“We take it day by day here now,” Boucher said. “We have to figure out who is replacing who in what roles.” The downside?
No one call-up is going to fill the vacant gap precisely to a tee.
“It creates unrealistic expectations,” Boucher said.
At least Boucher and Yzerman will have an idea of what options are available to them should a situation like the current one ever present itself again.