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Lightning GM Yzerman not excited to face Red Wings

by Corey Long /

BRANDON, Fla. -- General manager Steve Yzerman is pleased to have the Tampa Bay Lightning back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a second straight season.

However, the 2009 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee isn't so excited the opponent for their Eastern Conference First Round series, which begins at Amalie Arena on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN, TVA Sports 2, FS-D, FS-F), is the Detroit Red Wings.

Yzerman scored 762 goals and had 1,178 assists in 1,710 regular-season and playoff games in his 23 seasons in Detroit, where he won the Stanley Cup three times as a player and once as a member of the front office before departing for Tampa Bay in 2010.

"I'd prefer to play other teams, but obviously I have tremendous respect for the [Detroit] organization from the top to the bottom," Yzerman said. "They've been one of the elite franchises in professional sports for a long time and continue to be and will continue to be beyond this year. So I have great admiration for them."

Now five seasons into his tenure, the Lightning are Yzerman's team. He inherited a superstar in the prime of his career, Steven Stamkos, and has surrounded him with a young group of players, including Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Victor Hedman and Jonathan Drouin, that is dynamic and plays an exciting, up-tempo brand of hockey similar to the style Yzerman enjoyed with the Red Wings.

He also has secured goaltending depth. In April 2013, Tampa Bay traded for Ben Bishop, whose 40 wins this season set a Lightning record, and at the 2012 NHL Draft it used a first-round pick (No. 19) to select Andrei Vasilevskiy, a 20-year-old rookie widely considered the top goalie prospect in the League.

Yzerman proved that he wasn't afraid to make an unpopular decision when he traded captain and fan favorite Martin St. Louis to the New York Rangers for Ryan Callahan at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline.

Last summer Yzerman added veterans Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle, who went to the Cup Final with the New York Rangers last season and provide leadership on and off the ice.

The way Yzerman has constructed the Lightning is a clear nod to the lessons he learned during his time in Detroit.

"I learned a lot as a player in the organization from all the coaches, like Scotty [Bowman] and Mike Babcock, and of course [general manager] Ken Holland," Yzerman said. "It's greatly influenced how I perform in my job and the decisions I make and how I go about them and the vision I have for the organization and the way we play hockey."

Yzerman's vision has gotten the Lightning into the playoffs three times, including a trip to the Eastern Conference Final in 2010-11, his first season. His goals are clearly shaped by the Red Wings' success, which includes 24 consecutive postseason appearances.

Yzerman's eyes light up when he talks about bringing a second Stanley Cup championship to Tampa Bay.

"We have lofty goals and high expectations," Yzerman said. "There are a lot of things we're hoping to accomplish here, and we haven't come close to those yet. I think we're on the right track, but we haven't accomplished the things that I've set out for us to accomplish and the goals that [Lightning owner] Jeff Vinik has set for this organization."

The Lightning ascended to the NHL's upper echelon this season, winning 50 games for the first time and scoring a League-high 259 goals.

However, after being swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round last spring, Tampa Bay must prove it can win in the playoffs.

Yzerman hopes the Lightning learned something from that disappointing postseason experience and take the lesson with them as they prepare for the start of their best-of-7 series against the Red Wings.

"We want to elevate our play to the intensity that the playoffs demand," Yzerman said. "Over the season the team has responded well to adversity. We battled injuries all year and the young players that came in gained good experience with the opportunity. The game is very demanding this time of year. We only played four games last year but I think the experience from that will be valuable."

Yzerman is fully committed to winning a championship in Tampa Bay right now, but part of him wishes he didn't have to go through his friends to get there.

"Honestly I have a relationship with the organization my entire professional life and have many friends in the offices there," Yzerman said. "I have an affinity for them. I was there for a long time and we accomplished a lot while I was there. And I'm proud of what we accomplished."

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