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Yzerman's patient approach paying off for Lightning

by Dan Rosen

TAMPA -- Through 12 seasons and three Stanley Cup championships, Kris Draper watched and played alongside Steve Yzerman as he masterfully mixed qualities such as being humble with being calculated in order to become one of the greatest players of all time.

Draper, watching from a distance now, has seen Yzerman use those same qualities to become one of the best general managers in the NHL.

Yzerman inherited forward Steven Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman and has used them as his centerpieces to carefully and methodically, piece by piece, build the Tampa Bay Lightning into a Stanley Cup contender.

The Lightning start the Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks at Amalie Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). Yzerman won the Stanley Cup three times as a player with the Red Wings and once as a member of Red Wings management.

The Lightning are without question his team now, and they have a chance to be his masterpiece.

"Knowing Stevie when he retired and the type of player he was, you knew that he was going to take the same kind of passion into his new role," said Draper, now a special assistant to the general manager with the Red Wings. "He was obviously one of the greatest players to play the game. And with that he wanted to move on and be one of the most successful general managers. He's put himself in a situation to win the Stanley Cup. And the people that know Stevie, to them it's not a surprise."

Before building the Lightning into a contender Yzerman went through the Red Wings' school of management, working side-by-side with Detroit general manager Ken Holland and then-assistant general manager Jim Nill from the time he retired in 2006 to May 25, 2010, the day he was hired to be the Lightning's general manager.

Yzerman's training gave him the tools he needed to bring the Lightning to the precipice of a championship. He learned how to distance himself from emotion to make rational, hard decisions, such as cutting ties with two of the Lightning's most senior players.

Yzerman recognized that the time was right to buy out the contract of forward Vincent Lecavalier after the 2012-13 season, and trade forward Martin St. Louis at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline.

"I call it dispassionate assessment, and it's necessary in a cap world," said Craig Button, a former NHL general manager and current NHL Network and TSN analyst. "You have to look forward. And if you want to maintain success there is no place for sentimentality. You can do that with a tribute video when they return with another team or a jersey retirement. But you have to make these decisions to remain competitive. It takes courage, but the essence of managing is having conviction in what you're doing."

Yzerman's conviction was strong enough for him to realize that he couldn't be swayed by surprising success. The Lightning went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2011, his first season; what he did after is the reason why they're built to be a consistent contender now.

Yzerman realized that even though the Lightning had a good run, they were an older team, one that wasn't built to last.

The Lightning went through two straight losing seasons and a coaching change, but now they're young, fast, aggressive and fun, with an average age of 26 and a bright future beyond this year's Stanley Cup Final.

"We had to be patient," Yzerman said. "It's not like I could go out there and pluck out of free agency a couple of good wingers and defensemen. They're just not out there. So I don't think there is any other way than to be patient. … I didn't know any other way."

Patience is easier to have when you believe the plan you have in place is the right one and you can see it working. That's how Yzerman felt.

He was comfortable that Stamkos and Hedman were the right young players to build around, and then he watched the development of players such as Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat in the American Hockey League, and Nikita Kucherov in Russia and then the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Those players, and others, including Nikita Nesterov, J.T. Brown, Cedric Paquette, Andrej Sustr, Vladislav Namestnikov and Andrei Vasilevskiy, were discovered under the watch of Lightning chief amateur scout Al Murray, who was one of Yzerman's most important hires after he got the GM job.

Murray, who was hired Aug. 16, 2010, is one of the top scouts in the world. His fingerprints are all over the Lightning as much as Yzerman's.

"Al Murray has been instrumental," Button said. "He has loads of experience and a very good track record. I don't think there is any doubt Steve has full trust and confidence in Al, as he should."

Murray's first draft, 2011, netted the Lightning Namestnikov in the first round (No. 27), Kucherov in the second (No. 58), Nesterov in the fifth (No. 148) and Palat in the seventh (No. 208). Yzerman signed Johnson as an undrafted free agent in March 2011.

Johnson, Kucherov and Palat make up the "Triplets" line, one of the best in the NHL. They have 28 of Tampa Bay's 55 goals in the playoffs. Nesterov is on his way to becoming a top young defenseman. Namestnikov remains a work in progress.

"Al Murray and our amateur scouting staff have done a very good job at finding players," Yzerman said. "They've been very patient in allowing them to develop on the ice and develop off the ice physically, and just mentally mature. We've been lucky, truthfully. If we had known Ondrej would have been that good we wouldn't have waited until the seventh round to get him."

Yzerman also hired Julien BriseBois and Pat Verbeek as his assistant general managers shortly after he was hired as GM.

BriseBois has been influential in many areas, particularly in understanding and handling the details of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Verbeek oversees the Lightning's professional scouting department.

BriseBois and Verbeek also discovered Lightning coach Jon Cooper.

Cooper won championships with two junior teams in Michigan. He won back-to-back championships in the North American Hockey League with the St. Louis Bandits, a team owned by former St. Louis Blues forward Kelly Chase. He won the Clark Cup with the Green Bay Gamblers in the United States Hockey League.

"Stevie called me and said, 'Tell me why I want to hire Jon Cooper. Tell me why I've got to hire this guy,'" Chase said. "I said, 'Stevie, I don't know what it is man, but I just know he coaches the game the right way, with a high pace, and he's a winner.'"

Yzerman hired Cooper to coach the Norfolk Admirals, the Lightning's AHL affiliate at the time, before the 2010-11 season. Cooper led Norfolk to the Calder Cup championship in his second season, when the Admirals also won a professional sports record 28 consecutive games.

Cooper replaced Guy Boucher as the Lightning coach March 25, 2013. Tampa Bay is 101-59-20 since.

"You've got to give Steve Yzerman credit because that's a bit of a stretch," Chase said. "There's a lot of guys out there that played or did whatever that he could have put in that minor league job. And Steve played with a lot of guys that were probably looking for coaching jobs. But he went out of the box and took Jon Cooper."

Yzerman also worked his magic in the trade and free-agent market.

He traded forward Cory Conacher to the Ottawa Senators for goaltender Ben Bishop, who became the first goalie in NHL history to win have shutouts in his first two Game 7s.

Yzerman created approximately $6 million in salary-cap room hours before the free-agent market opened in the summer of 2014, trading forwards Nate Thompson, Teddy Purcell and B.J. Crombeen for what amounted to draft picks and a $1.6 million salary retention on forward Sam Gagner, who was a Lightning player for about 10 minutes before he was traded to the Arizona Coyotes.

Yzerman used the cap room to sign defenseman Anton Stralman and center Brian Boyle.

"To add a player like [Stralman] was unreal for us," Hedman said.

Tampa Bay still needed a second defense pair, so Yzerman acquired Jason Garrison from the Vancouver Canucks at the 2014 NHL Draft and Braydon Coburn from the Philadelphia Flyers at the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline.

"It's about success," Draper said. "Stevie is a very confident guy. But with that said he thinks the game very well. Not only did he used to do that as a player, but he's showing right now that he does it as an executive."


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