Yzerman imports Motor City mentality to Tampa

Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Steve Yzerman was one of the early players in hockey’s reality show, Stars in NHL Management, learning at the knee of wise Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland.

Yzerman has since seen contemporaries like Ron Francis, Brendan Shanahan, Doug Weight, Joe Sakic, Bill Guerin and others doing their organizational homework before finding themselves working inside — or sometimes running — a National Hockey League team’s personnel department.

Yzerman, now the general manager of the Lightning, struck out on his own in Tampa prior to the 2010-11 season, but he took with him a wealth of Winged Wheel knowledge. Today, he has a good young team with a productive pipeline, and a couple of budding stars — Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson — who were drafted in Round 7, and not drafted at all, respectively.

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And when you ask him about them, who does Yzerman sound like? He sounds exactly like Holland, when we used to ask him about drafting Pavel Datsyuk (Rd. 6 in ’98) and Henrik Zetterberg (Rd. 7 in ’99).

“We didn’t know when we drafted Ondrej Palat in the seventh round, that two years later he’d be runner up for rookie of the year. Likewise for Tyler Johnson (the other runner-up to Nathan MacKinnon for last spring’s Calder Trophy),” Yzerman admits. “We got lucky. Our scouts did a good job.

“These guys are playing 20 minutes a game and getting 50 points. If you knew they were going to do that (as rookies) you’d have drafted them in the first round. It’s the common joke that any scout would say: If I knew he was going to be that good I would have taken him higher.”

The best are always getting lucky, it seems. But as Tampa showed up in Edmonton for a Monday night game having lost red-hot defenceman Victor Hedman for four-to-six weeks with a busted finger, it’s their depth that will get them through for this next stretch of games.

“That’s the only way we’re going to make up for it,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “We don’t have one guy who can step up and be Victor Hedman.”

The good news is, as Hedman checks in for surgery on Tuesday, Steven Stamkos — who snapped his right tibia in Boston last Nov. 11 — has finally found his form, with five goals in the Lightning’s first five games. Cooper saw it best as Stamkos busted in on goal, looking for a hat trick on Saturday night in Vancouver.

“He took the puck hard to the net coming off the left side, and (Eddie) Lack made a good save on him,” Cooper replayed. “Stammer wouldn’t have done that since he came back from the injury, because mentally, he wouldn’t have gone to those traffic areas. Now he is. That, I think, is the huge hurdle. Instinctively he goes to those corners now, where when he first came back, mentally he just wasn’t there.”

It was pure folly to think that Stamkos could have been ready for the Sochi Winter Olympics last February, though Canadians deluded themselves with that possibility, anguished over the thought of entering the Olympic tournament minus the game’s best pure scorer.

And the thing was, Stamkos was every bit as delusional.

“I thought I was a lot closer than I was,” he admits now. “For me, the real eye-opener was taking the Olympics off, and knowing how much better it felt just after those two-and-a-half weeks. If it were up to me I still would have went. But in the end… it really was a no-brainer. It really is amazing how much better it feels… since then.”

So their star is back, and he’s flanked up front — figuratively, not literally — by those two runners up for the 2014 Calder Trophy. Oh, and Jonathan Drouin is here, and expected to make his NHL debut Tuesday night in Calgary. (Ed. note: Drouin was a late addition to the Tampa Bay lineup in Edmonton on Monday after teammate Alex Killorn was ruled out of the contest.)

The Lightning have drafted smartly, and developed even better. You might have heard of a team that did that pretty well, starting with a kid named Yzerman back in 1983. And in the 30 seasons since, the Detroit Red Wings have missed the playoff a grand total of two times.

“It’s the Detroit way, yes. Nothing complicated,” Yzerman said of his build in Tampa. “I’ve tried to hold on to our picks, accumulate picks… We’re all trying to draft well, and we are starting to find some good players. And add through free agency.

“Peak years for players, they start around 23 and go into their late 20s. The expectation is unrealistic at the age of 18, 19, and if they don’t come out of junior and light up the league in the first year, everybody writes them off. Do the history with the draft: how many guys have had an impact at 18 or 19 years old? Very, very few.”

Yes, Kenny… I mean, Steve.

That’s sound management.

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