When the Tampa Bay Lightning tabbed Steve Yzerman to be the sixth general manager in franchise history two years ago, there was little doubt the Hockey Hall-of-Famer would make significant strides in transforming the team into a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
Few, however, expected him to do it this soon.
Sparked by a change in philosophy that began when Jeff Vinik purchased the team in March 2010, Yzerman and his staff have been working diligently to improve the product on the ice, so much in fact, to the point where it can sustain success for the long-term. But rather than signing big-name free agents to lengthy contracts worth large sums of money in hopes of finding immediate gratification, Yzerman is seeking to build the franchise up from the bottom to ensure the future remains bright for years to come.
It all starts with rectifying what has been a symptom of a larger problem for the Lightning: the lack of organizational depth.
Since drafting Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards in 1998, the team has struggled evaluating young talent, evidenced by the fact that from 1999-2007, the team did not select a player who made a significant impact despite 14 selections in either the first or second round.
Steven Stamkos, chosen with the No. 1 overall pick in 2008, seemed to buck that trend, while the selection of Victor Hedman at No. 2 overall the following year served as a good indicator that the team’s ability to draft top-notch talent was improving.
“It had been deficient,” Boucher told the Tampa Bay Times prior to the start of the 2011-12 season. “We don't have the guys who were drafted three, four, five years ago. Where are they besides Stamkos and Hedman? What hurts are all those guys picked in the first round who didn't pan out, especially the defensemen. That’s huge, so we have to build it up again, and it takes time.”
While there is still a lot of work to be done, it already appears as if the moves Yzerman has made in just two short years are already beginning to pay immediate dividends.
Organizational depth is on display in Norfolk where Panik's OT goal launched the AHL-affiliate Admirals into the Eastern Conference Finals Friday night.
Perhaps there is no better example of that than the team’s top minor league affiliate in Norfolk of the American Hockey League, which this season clinched its second consecutive postseason berth in as many years as both Yzerman and assistant general manager Julien BriseBois have been at the helm.
To gauge just the sort of impact that Yzerman and BriseBois had, consider that the team had never so much even once reached the postseason as a Lightning affiliate. And now? Norfolk has earned a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals of the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs.
Part of that success stems from a core of young prospects already in the system which Yzerman had to build around, including Mark Barberio, Dustin Tokarski and Richard Panik.
But even with that, the team’s farm system was still considerably thin, leading Yzerman to take an approach that was at times traditional, and at others, creative.
Through more conventional means he drafted young players such as Brett Connolly, Vladislav Namestnikov, Radko Gudas and Ondrej Palat, but also put his own spin on things by scouring the college ranks to find players such as JT Brown and Cory Conacher.
Also already on display is Yzerman’s willingness to add other players in a similar manner, signing undrafted forwards such as Danick Gauthier, Tyler Johnson, Pierre-Cedric Labrie and Trevor Smith, and trading for young up-and-coming defensemen like Keith Aulie and Brendan Mikkelson.
Come next month, Yzerman will have up to six draft picks in the first two rounds from which to build further.
While the methods he is utilizing to acquire talent are as varied as each of those player’s individual backgrounds, one thing remains consistent: he continues to add to his own personal repertoire that is helping to improve the organization’s overall depth.