When Lightning fans first met Jeff Vinik a couple of months ago, a few things became immediately apparent about the team’s new owner. First, he is a very successful businessman – and therefore, one can deduce, has shown that he has a good track record of hiring quality people underneath him. Second, he is willing to be patient in making important choices; in speaking at one of his first press conferences about the eventual CEO hire, he stated that finding the right person was of paramount importance and he didn’t convey the sense that he was going to rush (or be rushed) into such a significant decision. Third, he spoke repeatedly and at length about the qualities he wanted in his employees, including honesty and integrity.
This week, Mr. Vinik reaffirmed all of these points in his choice for General Manager. One of the words most often associated with Steve Yzerman is “classy”. “Winner” is another. As was revealed in Tuesday’s press conference, Yzerman and Mr. Vinik, during the multiple conversations they had over the past several weeks, found in each other somewhat of a kindred spirit. Knowing what we know about the qualities of these two men, this revelation isn’t terribly surprising. On Tuesday, they relayed how, in the course of these discussions, they discovered that they share a similar vision about how to achieve success (something they’ve both done throughout their professional careers). This is a critical point. The owner and GM are not only on the same page, they possess the same intrinsic philosophy about how the team needs to be run. Expect Yzerman to hire a coach who is in synch with those tenets.
While it’s true that the Lightning are Yzerman’s first professional team to manage (he has served as GM for Hockey Canada during the World Championships and last February’s Olympics), the response from hockey people and the media (national and local) was overwhelmingly positive. I agree. Mr. Vinik was detailed and systematic in his approach to choosing his GM and Yzerman exudes that same methodical characteristic. In describing what appealed to him about Yzerman, one of the words Mr. Vinik used was “intelligence”. Steve Yzerman is smart, hard-working and well-respected. In four years as a vice-president of the Red Wings, he’s also been well-schooled in how a model franchise is managed. Lightning fans have good reason to be excited about the team’s future, both in the short and long term.
For those who believe that Chicago, which finished 24 points ahead of Philadelphia during the regular season, will enjoy a cakewalk to the Cup, think again. The Blackhawks and Flyers are evenly matched. The Flyers’ biggest issue during an up-and-down regular season (in addition to dealing with injuries that forced them to use a carousel of goaltenders) was an inability to play to their potential over 82 games. They are a very good, deep, dangerous team – one that many preseason prognosticators thought would be exactly where they are right now. In addition to enjoying a well-rounded offensive attack, the Flyers are playing committed team defense, blocking lots of shots and receiving incredible goaltending. Obviously, getting Simon Gagne back from injury during the Boston series was a huge boost and now Jeff Carter has also returned. The Flyers will be a worthy opponent for the favored ‘Hawks.
Having written that, I have felt all year that the Blackhawks are the team to beat. When the ‘Hawks are on their game, they have the puck most of the time. This not only limits the shots and scoring chances for the opposition, it also increases the number of Chicago’s own offensive looks. If Chicago had an Achilles heel entering the playoffs, many experts felt that it was in net. But Antti Niemi, despite his inexperience on this large stage, has outperformed Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo and San Jose’s Evgeni Nabakov. And Chicago has needed Niemi to be that good when it has hit a few speed bumps. In beating San Jose, the Blackhawks simply made more plays at key times (particularly Dustin Byfuglien, who had three game-winners in the sweep). They’ll need to keep making those plays against the Flyers. And I believe they will.
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