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New regime in Tampa as Yzerman takes charge

by Mike G. Morreale
Steve Yzerman has certainly had his share of pressure-packed moments this year.
And the weight on those shoulders won't subside anytime soon. Not when he's shedding salary and rebuilding from the goalmouth out as the newly appointed vice president and general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
First, it was the pressure of building a winner at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver as the executive director of Team Canada. He'd accomplish that, leading the entire country into a state of euphoria following the team's gold-medal-winning overtime effort over the United States on Feb. 28.

Three months later, there was Lightning owner Jeff Vinik announcing Yzerman as his new VP/GM. Since then, the 2009 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee has acquired 15 players, re-signed seven restricted free agents and one unrestricted free agent and pulled the trigger on three trades.
"In some ways it's scary," Yzerman said. "I've been sheltered for a long time in Detroit and they have protected me. I'm stepping out on my own for the first time since I was 18 years old."
If Yzerman is feeling the heat, you'd never know it.
Just 16 days after settling in at his new office at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, he'd hire Guy Boucher as Lightning coach. The 38-year-old Boucher, named the American Hockey League's coach of the year after leading the Hamilton Bulldogs to a franchise-record 52 victories and a regular-season conference championship in his first season as coach, is currently the youngest coach in the NHL.
A bold move for sure, but Yzerman also realizes change was in order for a club that has failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs three straight years. It appeared that string of postseason failures would be broken last season -- the Lightning sat in sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings on Feb. 9 following a four-game winning streak. The club then dropped its final three games prior to the Olympic break to fall out of the top eight and later went into an 8-12-1 spiral to close out the season.

By dealing defenseman Andrej Meszaros to the Flyers, Yzerman freed up $4 million in salary for 2010-11 and $18.25 million over the last four years of the contract. It was certainly a start to fulfilling his goal of building through the draft while gaining equitable assets. Defenseman Matt Walker was also dealt to the Flyers, along with a 2011 fourth-round draft choice, for veteran Simon Gagne.
Unrestricted free agents Alex Tanguay (Calgary Flames), Kurtis Foster (Edmonton Oilers), Ryan Craig (Pittsburgh Penguins), Zenon Konopka (New York Islanders) and Antero Niittymaki (San Jose Sharks) decided to change allegiances.
The three biggest losses of that group would appear to be left wing Tanguay, defenseman Foster and goalie Niittymaki.
Tanguay was brought in to provide secondary scoring but produced just 10 goals -- one over the final 25 games -- and 37 points in 80 contests with the Lightning. He blamed his disappointing showing on the fact he spent little time with top forwards Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.
Foster was coming off a career season in which he led all Tampa defenders with 8 goals and 42 points, including 29 points on the power-play, in 71 games. He usually combined with Stamkos and St. Louis on the team's No. 1 power-play unit. The Lightning finished a respectable eighth in the League with a 19.3 percent power-play efficiency.
Niittymaki, meanwhile, all but assumed the No. 1 role in Tampa last season, his sixth in the League. He finished 21-18-5 with a 2.87 goals-against average and .909 save percentage and went a season-high eight consecutive games without a regulation loss from Jan. 21 thru Feb. 9. Less than five hours after Niittymaki signed with the San Jose Sharks, Yzerman reeled in UFA goalie Dan Ellis as his replacement.

Six days after selecting forward Brett Connolly with the sixth pick in the 2010 Entry Draft, Yzerman locked up the heart and soul of the organization and one of the League's premier point-producers in St. Louis for another four years.
He also signed Ellis, who will battle Mike Smith in training camp for the right to start in goal on two-year contract. Ellis and Smith will undoubtedly be in a heated training-camp battle for the right to earn the starting role on opening night against the Atlanta Thrashers on Oct. 9.
Ellis has played in 111 career NHL games with the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars, posting a 50-42-8 record, 2.64 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. He spent the previous three seasons with the Predators, playing in 31 games last season and finishing 15-13-1 with a 2.69 GAA and .909 save percentage.  The acquisition of Ellis certainly offsets the loss of Niittymaki.
The Lightning also signed Swedish center Niklas Persson from Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik of the Kontinental Hockey League, journeyman center Dominic Moore and stay-at-home defenseman Brett Clark, who has averaged 2.85 blocked shots per game in Colorado the last two seasons. Persson recorded 13 goals and 38 points with a plus-14 rating in the KHL last season after spending his entire career in the Swedish Elite League.
Yzerman also inked defenseman Pavel Kubina, 32, to a two-year deal, perhaps offsetting the loss of Foster. Kubina, who began his career with the Lightning and won a Cup with the organization in 2003-04, has amassed 103 goals and 348 points in 822 career games with the Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Atlanta Thrashers.
Yzerman also acquired Gagne, a two-time 40-goal scorer who has been sidelined by injuries the last two seasons, but is still an offensive force when healthy. He had 17 goals and 40 points in 58 regular-season games and 9 goals and 12 points in 19 playoff games with the Flyers in 2009-10. Gagne waived his no-trade clause to leave the only team he's played for the last 10 seasons.

A summer of change in Tampa Bay has produced great expectations for the upcoming season.
Still, will the Lightning have enough in the tank to compete for a Southeast Division title in 2010-11? The club has finished no higher than fourth the last three seasons. Still, the team did lose 11 one-goal games in regulation and three in overtime on the way to finishing fourth in the division -- three points behind second-place Atlanta.
Yzerman is hoping to change all that, but realizes it won't happen overnight.
"When taking the job initially (on May 25), I explained what my plan was, so to speak," Yzerman said. "What I wanted to get to and how I want to get there. It takes time. I'm not coming in and promising a Stanley Cup in two years … certainly if we're in that position, I won't refuse it. But these things take time."

"When taking the job initially (on May 25), I explained what my plan was, so to speak. What I wanted to get to and how I want to get there. It takes time. I'm not coming in and promising a Stanley Cup in two years … certainly if we're in that position, I won't refuse it. But these things take time."
-- Lightning GM, Steve Yzerman

While Yzerman continues to upgrade his roster, there also happen to be a few irreplaceable parts, including forwards Stamkos, St. Louis, Lecavalier and Ryan Malone and defenseman Victor Hedman.
Stamkos (51 goals, 95 points) became the third-youngest player in NHL history to score at least 50 goals in a season -- scoring 17 of those during his 18-game point streak. He also led the League in power-play goals with 24. St. Louis finished second on the team in both goals (29) and points (94) and
Lecavalier, who underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee on Aug. 24 but should be available for the start of training camp (Sept. 17), was fourth with 24 goals and 70 points.
Malone provided that physical presence up front, racking up a team-leading 178 hits, while producing 21 goals (7 game-winners) and 47 points. The Lightning also have a human fireplug at their disposal in Steve Downie, who finished with career highs across the board last season in games played (79), goals (22), assists (24), points (46), plus-minus rating (plus-14) and, oh yes, penalty minutes (208).
On defense, Hedman finished with 20 points in 74 games in his initial season, showing improvement down the stretch and alongside veteran Mattias Ohlund.
Secondary scoring remains an issue, as does team defense, which finished 27th in the League with a 3.08 goals-against average. Goaltending has also been an issue, although the addition of Ellis could help aid in that department. Smith finished 13-18-9 with a 3.09 GAA and .900 save percentage in his second full season in Tampa.
Yzerman also made a pretty significant hire when he tabbed Al Murray, who had been head scout of Hockey Canada's men's national teams since August 2007, as Tampa Bay's director of amateur scouting. Prior to joining Hockey Canada, Murray spent 12 years (1995-2007) as the director of amateur scouting for the Los Angeles Kings.

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