It was apparent that when Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman acquired three defensemen prior to the NHL trade deadline in February, he was not only looking to add some size to the Bolts’ blue line, but some youth too.
In adding Brian Lee and Keith Aulie, each of whom are no older than 25 and no smaller than 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, it appears Yzerman succeeded in meeting both of those objectives.
But while the moves certainly altered the immediate landscape of the team, they perhaps more so revealed Yzerman’s vision to build for the future, as well as his goal to create long-term sustainability that the franchise needs to be successful.
“We were looking for guys who we believed could play for a long time,” Yzerman said at the time of the trades. “This was an opportunity to take advantage of that.”
The foundation for Yzerman’s plan, after all, is to get better while getting younger.
And rather than having to give up any of the team’s assets to accomplish that goal, the best approach is to draft well and develop young players within the team’s own system.
It’s a philosophy that Yzerman has bought into, as the deals that brought both Lee and Aulie to Tampa Bay were part of a larger series of transactions that now has the Lightning prepared to take up to six first and second round picks into next month’s NHL Entry Draft.
While this year’s pool is said to be chock full of defensive talent, Yzerman already, in fact, has some stored away to build around.
Of the 14 total draft selections Yzerman has made since his appointment as general manager just two years ago, nearly half of them – six to be exact – have been used to take defensemen. Five of those were taken in Yzerman’s very first draft, in 2010, while just one was chosen in the most recent draft last summer.
The Lightning acquired Brendan Mikkelson from the Flames in February of 2012.
For defensemen, the 300-game plateau is considered the point at which they begin to round out their games, and while none of those draft picks have yet to even debut at the NHL level, much less prove themselves at it, the unknown regarding their potential makes that of the Bolts’ current core all the more important.
Aulie, 6-foot-6, 217 pounds, provides a physical body as well as some mobility, but according to Guy Boucher, needs to refine his stickhandling skills and improve his poise with the puck inside his own zone. Lee, meanwhile, is a former first-round pick by Ottawa who provides a stay-at-home presence and who this past season, showed his willingness to step up on the blueline and deliver big body checks with his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame.
There is also Brendan Mikkelson, 24, who after being acquired from Calgary midway through the season in exchange for Blair Jones, earned a spot on the power-play unit as a result of displaying good smarts with the puck and a big shot.
Anchoring it all, however, is 21-year-old Victor Hedman, taken with the second overall pick in 2009 and who just this past November, signed a five-year contract with the Lightning set to keep him in Tampa Bay through the 2016-17 season.
While his numbers this past season were not overpowering, and although he did miss time due to injury, Hedman began to evolve as a player. He earned minutes against top lines, played on both the power play and the penalty kill units, jumped into the offensive rush on occasion and seemed to have more poise with the puck.
But as head coach Guy Boucher echoed, the progression of Hedman and his fellow cast of young defensemen is not one he expects to occur over night, but rather, is a gradual process that is currently heading in the right direction.
“I think we are moving forward,” Boucher told The Tampa Tribune in February following the trades for Lee and Aulie. “We brought in some experience, some size, and some mobility for now and the future.”
BOLTS DEFENSE AT A GLANCE:
|DEFENSEMAN NAME ||AGE ||HEIGHT/WEIGHT ||NHL EXPERIENCE |
|Victor Hedman ||21 ||6-6, 229 lbs. ||214 GP |
|Keith Aulie ||22 ||6-6, 217 lbs. ||76 GP |
|Brian Lee ||25 ||6-3, 205 lbs. ||187 GP |
|Brendan Mikkelson ||24 ||6-3, 205 lbs. ||127 GP |
|Marc-Andre Bergeron ||31 ||5-9, 198 lbs. ||465 GP |
|Brett Clark ||35 ||6-0, 194 lbs. ||681 GP |
|Mike Commodore ||32 ||6-4, 227 lbs. ||484 GP |
|Mattias Ohlund ||35 ||6-4, 229 lbs. ||909 GP |
|Eric Brewer ||33 ||6-3, 220 lbs. ||840 GP |
|Bruno Gervais ||27 ||6-1, 200 lbs. ||381 GP |