How Steve Yzerman built the Tampa Bay Lightning into a powerhouse

Steve Yzerman explains why he gave up his general manager title, what his new role will be and how long he thinks he'll stick around in Tampa.

Steve Yzerman stepped down as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning in a shocking development on Tuesday, a team he had been at the helm of for eight seasons since being hired on May 25, 2010.

The former Red Wing great and Hockey Hall of Famer built up a powerhouse over that time, reaching one Stanley Cup final, another three conference finals, never winning the Cup in his tenure. With one season left on his contract with the team, Yzerman is stepping into an advisory role and will be replaced in the GM’s chair by Julien BriseBois.

When Yzerman first took over, he assumed control of a team that had missed the playoffs three seasons in a row, but had recent draft picks Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman as cornerstones for the future. Still, a team as strong as this isn’t put together with only two solid players — Yzerman built up an entire organization.

For reference, here is a look at Tampa Bay’s scoring leaders when Yzerman took over (points accumulated while members of the Lightning):

PLAYER G A PTS
Steven Stamkos 51 44 95
Martin St. Louis 29 65 94
Vincent Lecavalier 24 46 70
Ryan Malone 21 26 47
Steve Downie 22 24 46
Kurtis Foster 8 34 42
Alex Tanguay 10 27 37
Victor Hedman 4 16 20
Andrej Meszaros 6 11 17
Brandon Bochenski 4 9 13
Mike Lundin 3 10 13
Mattias Ohlund 0 13 13
Teddy Purcell 3 6 9
Stephane Veilleux 3 6 9
Paul Szczechura 5 2 7
Todd Fedoruk 3 3 6
James Wright 2 3 5
Matt Walker 2 3 5
Zenon Konopka 2 3 5
Nate Thompson 1 3 4
David Hale 0 4 4
Paul Ranger 1 1 2
Mark Parrish 0 2 2
Matt Smaby 0 2 2

And the goalies:

PLAYER W GAA SV%
Antero Niittymaki 21 2.87 .909
Mike Smith 13 3.09 .900

Over the next season Yzerman made two especially impactful trades, acquiring Dwayne Roloson to become the starter on Jan. 1, and then bringing in Eric Brewer around the trade deadline to lead the team in minutes. Tampa Bay bounced all the way back to the conference final, but missed the playoffs completely in 2012 and the lockout-shortened 2013.

It was from this period on that the foundation for a powerhouse was laid.

Here is a look at all the elements around how Yzerman rebuilt the Tampa Bay Lightning into one of the most sustainable and formidable teams in the NHL today.

THE TRADES

April 3, 2013
To Tampa Bay: Ben Bishop
To Ottawa: Cory Conacher, fourth-round pick

Only one Tampa Bay goalie had a save percentage better than .900 in 2012-13 — and that was Anders Lindback at a measly .902. Only four teams allowed more goals than the Lightning that season. Yzerman solved the problem by acquiring Ben Bishop at the trade deadline (which was pushed back by the lockout).

Conacher scored 24 points in 35 games for the Lightning in 2012-13, and the season prior won the AHL’s MVP award, but he never brought that success to the NHL. To date, Conacher’s career high is 26 points and he’s been a member of the Lightning again the past three seasons. Bishop played three seasons beginning to end with Tampa Bay, was a top-five goalie by save percentage over that time, and led it to a Stanley Cup final appearance. With free agency on the horizon and first-round pick Andrei Vasilevskiy ready to take over, Bishop was traded to Los Angeles at the 2017 trade deadline.

March 5, 2014
To Tampa Bay: First-round pick, second-round pick, Ryan Callahan
To New York Rangers: Martin St. Louis

Months after he was left off the Canadian Olympic team, which was headed by Yzerman, St. Louis reportedly asked for a trade. Retirement was nearing for him, but St. Louis had won the Art Ross Trophy in 2013 and was still scoring at a point-per-game pace.

Yzerman was able to work out a deal with the New York Rangers and the two contenders swapped captains, with the Lightning picking up valuable draft picks on top. The first-round pick was moved at the draft for a second and a third, which Yzerman used to take Mitchell Stephens and Anthony Cirelli, both of whom figure to have an impact in coming years. Callahan is still with the team, providing the leadership and penalty-killing.

June 15, 2017
To Montreal: Jonathan Drouin, conditional draft pick
To Tampa Bay: Mikhail Sergachev, conditional draft pick

In January of 2016, Drouin refused to report to the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, prompting the Lighting to suspend 2013’s third-overall pick. When he wasn’t traded by the deadline, Drouin returned but the die had been cast. This could have gone sideways, but the Lightning welcomed Drouin back the following season and he promptly scored 53 points in 73 NHL games.

This kept his trade value high, and provided Yzerman with an opportunity to strike in the summer. Montreal needed a centre (which Drouin hadn’t played since junior) and for all of Tampa Bay’s strengths, it lacked the same kind of star-upside prospect blueliner that it had up front. It was a perfect match and Yzerman traded Drouin, who was due a big raise off his entry-level contract, for Sergachev, who is still on his rookie deal for another two seasons and already making a hugely positive impact.

February 26, 2018
To Tampa Bay: J.T. Miller, Ryan McDonagh
To New York Rangers: Vlad Namestnikov, Libor Hajek, Brett Howden, 2018 first-round pick, conditional pick

A Stanley Cup contender, the Lightning scored the most goals in the NHL last season, but had trouble keeping the shots against down. Had Tampa Bay been able to get only McDonagh from the Rangers it would have addressed its biggest area of need, but Yzerman went a step further and actually upgraded on the forward he gave up in the trade. Now both Miller and McDonagh are signed long-term — with the latter playing the kind of safe shutdown game the Lightning needed, and the former coming off a career-best 58-point season.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

THE DRAFT PICKS

To build up a successful team you need to do a lot more at the draft table than just hit on your first-round pick. Only three of Yzerman’s eight first-round picks are still with the team today, in fact.

The key to building a sustained on-ice product through the draft is hitting on your post-Round 1 picks. This is where the scouting and development sets the great organizations apart from the average and subpar ones, and a look at the Lightning’s track record here under Yzerman shows where the backbone of this powerhouse is.

Nikita Kucherov, second-round pick in 2011
One of the top players in the game today, Kucherov is a season away from stepping into his massive new contract, which is still probably below-market value against the cap ($9.5 million) compared to other players capable of putting up 100 points in a season.

Ondrej Palat, seventh-round pick in 2011
An all-around player, Palat gets on the ice in all situations and has 60-point upside with a healthy season. The fourth-last pick in his draft has played more NHL games than 21 players who were taken in the first round.

Jake Dotchin, sixth-round pick in 2012
Not a star, but logged 16:29 per game in 48 games last season and showed good enough the season prior that Yzerman traded Jason Garrison and picks to Vegas to keep them away from Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek.

Brayden Point, third-round pick in 2014
A 5-foot-10 centre taken in the third round after scoring 91 points in the WHL, Point is coming off a 32-goal season. Only 24 NHLers scored more often.

Anthony Cirelli, third-round pick in 2015
A two-time OHL champion and WJC star for Canada, Cirelli came on late last season and scored 11 points in 18 games for the Lightning. If he sticks in the NHL this season, he could be the next breakout Lightning star.

Keep an eye on the 2016 draft: Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh were plucked by the Lightning in Round 2 of this draft and have the potential to follow the direction of Point, Cirelli and Palat. Both played starring roles for Canada at the WJC last year and even though they took that time away from the OHL, both were also top-13 scorers at season’s end. Something to monitor.

THE DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH

On top of finding a number of contributing players late in the draft, Yzerman and Co. further bolstered their lineup with a couple undrafted free agent signings who have had an immense impact.

Yanni Gourde: Scored just 28 QMJHL points in his draft year, but the 5-foot-9 winger budded into a 124-point player with Victoriaville two years later and went undrafted. San Jose was the first team to give him a contract, but after he failed to breakthrough from the AHL level he was left as a free agent again. The Lightning scooped him up from the ECHL and he still played four AHL seasons before arriving as a 26-year-old NHL player with 25 goals and 64 points.

Tyler Johnson: Another sub-6-footer on this list of late-round picks and undrafted gems (notice a trend?) every team passed over Johnson before he finished his junior career with a 115-point overage season. The Lightning signed him and Johnson immediately became an impact player in the AHL. In 2014-15 Johnson broke out with a 72-point NHL season and has settled in as a roughly 20-goal, 50-point player. Today he makes $5 million against the cap and is signed for another six seasons.

THE ASSISTANT GM TURNED GM

Two months after Yzerman took the GM job in 2010, he hired Julien BriseBois away from the Montreal Canadiens to be his assistant. According to the team’s website, BriseBois assisted Yzerman “in all aspects of player personnel decisions, analytics, player development, contract preparation and negotiation, as well as salary arbitration for the Lightning and the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League, for whom he also serves as general manager.”

BriseBois has had a hand in developing just about every player listed above as he ran the Crunch and, prior to that, the Norfolk Admirals. He led the Crunch to two Calder Cup finals and the Admirals to a championship in 2012. In many ways, BriseBois is Tampa Bay’s Kyle Dubas, with far more experience at the NHL level.

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