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Yzerman making winning moves as rookie GM

by Adam Kimelman /
If King Midas were brought to life, he'd currently occupy the general manager's office at the St. Pete Times Forum and be going by the name Steve Yzerman.

It seems like everything Yzerman has touched has turned to gold during his 50-week tenure with the team. From free agent moves to trades to hiring a coach, it's tough to find any failures in Yzerman's first season as an NHL general manager.

The Lightning finished fifth in the Eastern Conference and advanced to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season. After beating Pittsburgh and sweeping top-seeded Washington, they will start their first conference finals series since 2004 on Saturday night against the Bruins in Boston.

Part of that success has come from the players Yzerman inherited, among them Hart Trophy finalist Martin St. Louis, captain Vincent Lecavalier and third-year forward Steven Stamkos. But another part has come from the players Yzerman added since joining the franchise May 26, 2010.

Among them were offseason additions Simon Gagne, a forward acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers, and defenseman Pavel Kubina, a member of the 2004 Lightning team that won the Stanley Cup who was signed as a free agent. Then there were in-season deals that brought goalie Dwayne Roloson and defenseman Eric Brewer to the club.

However, it was two lesser moves that have paid the biggest dividends in the postseason -- center Dominic Moore and left wing Sean Bergenheim, both signed as free agents this summer. Moore is second on the team in faceoff winning percentage at 50.3 and has been the team's best defensive forward and ace penalty killer, while Bergenheim is tied for the playoff lead with 7 goals.

"I think you see it every year in the playoffs," Yzerman said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. "Some of the lesser-name players step up on the teams that advance or are guys that play bigger roles, they play really well. Moore and Bergenheim, they've been on a line for the most part with Steve Downie. They didn't play much in the regular season together but have formed a really effective line for us in the playoffs. And the one thing that all three have in common is they really compete hard. That's the most significant factor. Players that succeed in the playoffs really compete and they've done that for us. They all have different skills that they're really strong at and they complement each very well."

A high level of competitiveness is a trait Yzerman said he wants in all his players.

"We want players that compete hard," he said. "We're looking for the most skilled hockey players, but they also have to compete. We talked … about work ethic and competiveness, how important they are to building the culture. The players that we signed last summer, the players we acquired, we were really looking for competitive guys that love to do what they do."

They certainly saw that in Moore, who coach Guy Boucher and assistant general manager Julien BriseBois knew from working with him in the Montreal organization. The Lightning are Moore's eighth team in seven NHL seasons, but he set personal highs of 77 games played and 18 goals this season.

"With Guy and Julien being in the Montreal organization, they knew Dominic on and off the ice extremely well. Myself, having watched him the last few years, I know he's very competitive guy. We got a centerman who's very good on faceoffs, will be a very good penalty killer, can chip in a little offense. Probably wouldn't be a top power-play guy but could step up behind Stamkos and Lecavalier if we're looking for someone to center behind them, or if injuries or absences necessitated it. As far as a penalty killer, a checking centerman that has the ability to chip in offensively, that's what we expected and he's lived up to that."

Bergenheim was a late addition, but another player Yzerman had kept his eye on. He never found a niche in five seasons with the Islanders, but he's been a fit in Tampa Bay. The former first-round pick had a career-best 29 points while playing a personal-best 80 games this season.

"As we were piecing our lines together, we had that one spot there, a third line left wing open and who would be best at a certain dollar amount," Yzerman said. "We identified Sean. We liked his competitiveness, his work ethic. Gerard Gallant, Dan Lacroix both worked with Sean on the Island and I was able to confirm with them what we thought as a player, that he would he be a good fit for us. We were looking for somebody who could be a checker, an effective penalty killer, chip in the odd goal and for the most part he's done that, and probably exceeded that."

A high level of competitiveness and work ethic isn't something that Yzerman looks for only in his players. Just 16 days after he was hired in Tampa Bay, Yzerman made what might have been his most important offseason transaction -- hiring Boucher as coach.

Boucher had a successful resume, with championship stints with Drummondville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Hockey Canada and Hamilton of the American Hockey League. And it's just been more of the same with the Lightning. The partnership has worked so well that Yzerman and Boucher are the most successful first-year GM/coach tandem since the Philadelphia Flyers went to the 1985 Stanley Cup Final led by rookie GM Bob Clarke and first-year coach Mike Keenan.

"I know a lot of people that have worked with Guy and I've worked with as well," Yzerman said, "and everyone that I talked to, in asking the question is he ready to make the step to the NHL, and it was unequivocally yes, absolutely, he's ready. When you talk to him, his preparation -- and I've witnessed his preparation and work ethic on a daily basis here all year long -- that's reaffirmed there's no question he's ready to go. He's very innovative, a student of the game. In talking with him, his attention to detail, the depth that he goes into with how he wants his team to play, I was very comfortable.

"Much like Mike Babcock, who went in to Anaheim in his first job in the NHL, he (Boucher) was ready. We're fortunate that the timing worked out and we were able to hire Guy."

Of all the qualities that Yzerman like best about Boucher, his people skills and confidence stand out.

"He's got very good people skills and he's very sincere," Yzerman said. "And that comes across in his dealings with his players. He's genuine and he is what he is, an honest guy."

Yzerman saw that honesty first-hand early in Boucher's tenure.

"I talked to Guy at the beginning of the season, he said his goal is to win the Stanley Cup," said Yzerman. "He said ‘I'll figure out a way.’ He's got big expectations for himself."

Yzerman also has big expectations, and success in his first season on the job is only a starting point. He wants his golden touch to extend well into the future.

"I'm going to look back in three, four, five years and assess whether we as an organization have done a good job," he said. "We're thrilled in Year 1 to be where we are, but I want to look back in  few years and say our team's done a good job, our team is where we want it be, our organization is where we want it to be. We're enjoying this, but we recognize we have a lot of work to do."

Contact Adam Kimelman at Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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