Steve Yzerman is a hockey icon because of his career with the Detroit Red Wings. Now he’s built a team that will try to topple his former franchise.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, with Yzerman as general manager, will face the Red Wings in an Eastern Conference First Round series.
Tampa Bay set a Lightning record with 108 points and finished second in the Atlantic Division. Detroit has qualified for the playoffs 24 consecutive seasons, or two more than the Lightning have been in existence. The Red Wings reached 100 points for the 17th time since 1992-93 and finished third in the Atlantic.
One of the marquee matchups in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is sure to be Steven Stamkos against Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Stamkos finished with the second-most goals in the NHL but he is likely to encounter a lot of two of the best defensive forwards in the sport.
Each team is deep at forward and features several young, exciting talents who supplement the stars. Detroit lost several stalwarts from its back-to-back trips to the Cup Final in 2008-09, but a new wave of homegrown talent has given the Red Wings a potent attack.
Stamkos is the anchor of the top line and the featured act on the power play, but Tampa Bay's second line is among the best in the NHL. Three emerging stars -- Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat -- formed one of the most productive units in the NHL.
Yzerman played 22 seasons for the Red Wings from 1983-2006, and worked four seasons in the Detroit front office before taking the job in Tampa Bay in 2010. He inherited a roster with world-class talents like Stamkos and defensemen Victor Hedman and added several key players either through the draft (Palat, Kucherov, Jonathan Drouin), through trade (Ryan Callahan, Ben Bishop, Braydon Coburn) or via free agency (Anton Stralman, Jason Garrison, Valtteri Filppula).
This series will feature two of the best coaches in the NHL. Detroit's Mike Babcock has reached the Stanley Cup Final three times, winning once, and has two Olympic gold medals from his work with Canada in 2010 and 2014. Since Babcock became coach of the Red Wings in 2005-06, Detroit has 64 playoff victories, six more than any team in the League.
Tampa Bay's Jon Cooper was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award in 2014 and would be a worthy candidate this season. Cooper's incredible rise from practicing lawyer to NHL coach began not far from Joe Louis Arena. His first coaching job was at Lansing Catholic Central High School, about 90 miles west of Detroit.
Bishop and Jimmy Howard are the established No. 1 goaltenders, but the teams have young backups who could see time in the series if needed. Petr Mrazek has made a significant push to steal the job from Howard, and Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the elite prospects at the position and has played well in limited action for the Lightning.
The Lightning have one of the deepest set of forwards in the NHL. Nine players scored 12 or more goals this season. Steven Stamkos surpassed 40 goals for the fourth time despite several different linemates, including Alex Killorn, Ryan Callahan, Valtteri Filppula and Jonathan Drouin.
The line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat was one of the most productive in the NHL. All three have more than 60 points and a plus-30 rating or better. Kucherov struggled to stay in the lineup at times in his rookie season (2013-14) but the 21-year-old enjoyed a breakout. Kucherov plays larger than his 5-foot-11, 184-pound frame and is willing to go into congested areas to score.
Brian Boyle has been valuable as the fourth-line center and one of the top penalty killers. He can provide a scoring punch (15 goals) and has played shifts on defense when injuries forced him there. Rookie Cedric Paquette was an early call up from Syracuse who played his way into the lineup with his gritty style and a knack for scoring ugly goals.
Valterri Filppula sacrificed some of his offensive numbers by becoming the primary third-line center but remains a major part of the power play.
The loss of left wing Erik Cole, out for the season with a spinal contusion, is a big blow. Cole and left wing Justin Abdelkader, who was out late in the season with an injured hand, gave Detroit most of its size. Center Riley Sheahan is the only other big forward.
It's obviously a must that Abdelkader, who had a breakout regular season scoring 20 goals, returns.
There's plenty of skill and scoring punch with center Pavel Datsyuk, if he can stay healthy enough to play, left wing Henrik Zetterberg, and young wings Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist. They must be productive for Detroit to have any chance of winning a playoff round.
Sheahan is a key. He's the third-line center when Datsyuk and Zetterberg play on separate lines and moves up to No. 2 when they play together.
Darren Helm brings speed and a net-front presence. Fourth-line center Luke Glendening could shine with left wing Drew Miller; they are top penalty killers and effective grinders, roles that become more important in the playoffs. That pair, along with center/right wing Joakim Andersson, has made up a strong line for most of the season.
Detroit has struggled with faceoffs at times late in the season; that will have to improve.
Tampa Bay has been dealing with injuries for most of the season and is hoping to have Andrej Sustr (upper body) and Braydon Coburn (foot) available for the first round. Jason Garrison (upper body) is expected to miss the first round.
Anton Stralman has been a steady presence and will be leaned on heavily until the others return. Stralman's versatility will come into play early; he is a valuable member of the power play and penalty kill.
Victor Hedman returned from injury and, like Stralman, he'll be on the ice for 24-25 minutes a game and needed to contribute heavily on special teams. Despite missing 23 games, Hedman led Lightning defenseman with 10 goals, and coach Jon Cooper said his shot has become one of the best on the team.
Matthew Carle is the other healthy veteran and has seen his ice time increase considerably over the past couple of weeks. Carle won't give much offensively but he's had his moments on the power play.
The injuries to Sustr, Coburn and Jason Garrison have opened up time for Mark Barberio, Nikita Nesterov and Luke Witkowski. Barberio has the most experience and has done a good job of providing toughness. Witkowski and Nesterov are rookies who will be expected to stay at home, block shots, and handle physical play.
Detroit gets all it possibly can out of a unit that has Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson as its top pair. They are better when Ericsson doesn't make turnovers and excel at killing penalties. Kronwall is an offensive threat but hasn't "Kronwalled" anybody (with a devastating body check he became known for) in a while. We may see one or two of those in the playoffs. Ericsson is big but isn't physical on a consistent basis.
The second pair, Dan DeKyser and Kyle Quincey, was the most consistent for much of the season. DeKeyser, in his second full season, is steadily improving and may ultimately have the best career of any of the Red Wings defensemen. He's a great skater, is always in the right position defensively, makes a great first pass, and is getting better offensively. Quincey brings a stay-at-home, physical, blue-collar element.
The third pair received a boost with the acquisition of Marek Zidlicky prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. He has teamed with Brendan Smith, bringing offense with a right-handed shot and booming slap shot. Smith is more consistent this season but is prone to turnovers in his zone and questionable decisions. He could also be replaced in the lineup by rookie Alexey Marchenko, who played well near the end of the regular season.
Bishop was a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2013-14 when he set a Lightning record for wins (37) and had a 2.23 goals against average. He missed the playoffs with an elbow injury, and Tampa Bay, with Anders Lindback in goal, was swept by Montreal.
This season, Bishop broke his record with 39 wins and is healthy going into the postseason. However, his postseason work to date is one game in the minor leagues, and despite his regular-season success, could be considered somewhat of a question mark with his lack of experience.
As one of the NHL's top-scoring teams, Tampa Bay doesn't need Bishop to be perfect, but it will need him to avoid giving up goals in bunches like he has a few times in the past two months. The arrival of 20-year-old rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy helped Bishop get more rest down the stretch. Vasilevskiy has playoff experience from his time in the Kontinental Hockey League and leading Russia to a goal medal in the 2014 IIHF World Championship.
Although Bishop is the clear-cut starter and will have every chance to lead Tampa Bay through the postseason, Cooper will be not be shy about making a change if he needs to.
Whether the Red Wings go with Jimmy Howard or Petr Mrazek, goaltending will be a question mark/weakness until proven otherwise.
Howard hasn't been the same since returning from a groin injury he sustained Jan. 10, which sidelined him a month. He was the biggest reason for Detroit's early-season success and was picked to play in the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game hours before he was injured.
Howard said his struggles stem from not being able to track the puck as well as he had earlier in the season.
Mrazek, 23, won eight of 11 decisions in Howard's absence. He led the Grand Rapids Griffins to the Calder Cup in 2013, has shown he is a future No. 1 NHL goalie, and possesses the ability to put a bad performance behind him. But he has been inconsistent and needs to work on a few technical aspects.
The question is, do the Red Wings go with a struggling veteran with playoff experience and a solid postseason track record or a young player who has shown flashes of brilliance but who needs more seasoning?
The Lightning's commitment to staying within its structure and playing selfless hockey comes from the vision of Cooper. The former defense attorney pays close attention to details. He is quick to compliment players who make plays without the puck and are willing to go into the dirty areas of the ice to create opportunities.
Cooper won a Calder Cup as coach of the Syracuse Crunch in the American Hockey League in 2011-12 and was named the league's most outstanding coach in 2012. He's coached the Lightning to the playoffs in his first two full seasons.
Cooper will play all four lines, and with the depth at forward can expect any of them to provide offensive chances. He expects full effort on both ends of the ice and has rewarded young players Paquette and Vladislav Namestnikov with full-time roles because of their productivity.
Mike Babcock is considered by many to be the best coach in the NHL. He almost certainly will be the highest paid by the start of the 2015-16 season. Babcock is in the last season of his contract and some team, probably Detroit, will give him a huge long-term deal this summer.
Babcock has a Stanley Cup (2008) and two Olympic gold medals and got the most out of the limited and, at times, injury-riddled Red Wings in each of the past two seasons
Babcock is in his 10th as Red Wings coach and is their all-time leader in wins.
He is an outstanding motivator and a good bench coach, but the Red Wings have been victimized by too-many-men penalties on several occasions this season, including one in each of three consecutive games late in the season.
It will be interesting to see how Babcock handles his goaltending situation, particularly if Howard and Mrazek remain inconsistent.
Despite leading the NHL in goals scored, the power play has been inconsistent and is in the middle of the pack. The inconsistency has been frustrating to Stamkos, who has often questioned his teammates' efforts when the unit has struggled.
"We have probably lost some points this season because our power play wasn't working," Stamkos said. "Other nights we have it going a little better, but it's frustrating because I think we all know how good it could be with the talent and speed we have on this team."
Even with the injuries, the Lightning are a top 10 team on the penalty kill, and much of that can be traced to Boyle and Stralman, who have played in every game this season.
The power-play production and the penalty-killing effectiveness fell off toward the end of the season after each was surprisingly good early.
The units were steadily in the NHL's top half during the first two-thirds of the season. Injuries to Datsyuk, a slump by Zetterberg, and goaltending issues are the biggest reasons for the recent lack of effectiveness.
The addition of Zidlicky has improved the power play, giving it a right-handed shooting defenseman with a strong slap shot and the ability to make smart and effective plays.
Glendening, Miller, Andersson and Helm are outstanding penalty-killing forwards, and the defense pair of Kronwall and Ericsson is usually effective when playing shorthanded.
Tyler Johnson --
Center - TBL
GOALS: 29 | ASST: 43 | PTS: 72
SOG: 203 | +/-: 33
"The Triplets" line of Johnson, Kucherov and Palat has been one of the top scoring lines in the NHL, and Johnson is the best goal-scorer of the three. He has great chemistry with his linemates and tends to be in the right place at the right time. Johnson isn't big but he's sturdy and isn't afraid to battle for the puck or go into tight areas. If there was any knock on Johnson, it's sometimes he'll try to make the perfect pass instead of shooting the puck, but when he does shoot good things usually happen.
As teams tend to focus their game plan on trying to stop Stamkos, Johnson should be able to create some scoring opportunities without drawing the toughest assignments. He's also the key to their power play, which is at its best when Johnson is handling the puck for a shot or looking for the open man.
Pavel Datsyuk --
Center - DET
GOALS: 26 | ASST: 39 | PTS: 65
SOG: 165 | +/-: 12
If the forward has to miss games, there is almost no chance to win a series. Datsyuk, 36, missed 19 games during the regular season and finished with 26 goals and 65 points. Without his productivity, creativeness, 200-foot game and ability to win faceoffs, it will be difficult to get out of the first round.
Datsyuk has played in 108 of 164 games in the past two regular seasons and is getting injured more often the older he gets. If he can stay on the ice, it will be a huge boost.
LIGHTNING WILL WIN IF … the young defensemen can perform well enough until Sustr and Coburn return, and Bishop shows his early regular-season form. Barberio, Nesterov and Witkowski will have to commit to staying home on the back end and keeping some of the pressure off Bishop. At times they've been prone to mental lapses that can be expected from rookies, but the margin of error in the playoffs is much smaller. Even if the young players do their part, Bishop will be asked to make some tough saves and deal with extended play at his end of the ice. Tampa Bay will score some goals to make his life easier, but they want to avoid high-scoring games.
RED WINGS WILL WIN IF … Datsyuk can stay healthy; he, Zetterberg, Tatar and Nyquist can provide offense; and Sheahan wins his third- or second-line center match-up. They also need to avoid turnovers and have one of the goalies play well.
Neither Tatar nor Nyquist managed a point in a five-game playoff loss to the Boston Bruins last season. Sheahan is a big center who plays well defensively, has shown good hands, has passing ability, and knows how to control and protect the puck in the offensive zone.
They must eliminate the turnovers that late in the season made the goaltending issues even more glaring.
Written by Corey Masisak, Corey Long and Paul Harris