I’ve been holding off on this series while the free agent dust settles and, while there are still more than a few free agents still looking to find a new team, it appears we are moving into the doldrums of off season activity.
For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll examine teams that previously struggled to the point that they pretty much bottomed out and then, for a variety of reasons, started climbing the standings and became legitimate contenders or, at least appear to be on the way to becoming successful.
We’ll also look at teams, like the Edmonton Oilers who have been rebuilding for a significant period of time but are still floundering as well as a team that is just starting to blow things up and start over…that is the Toronto Maple Leafs.
So, going forward, over the next several posts, from best to worst:
New York Islanders
Your mileage may vary but I think we’ve got the group surrounded but, if you think there should be any other team included, please let me know in comments.
No debate, really, about how thoroughly and successfully Steve Yzerman has rebuilt the Bolts into an elite team.
The Lightning were Stanley Cup finalists in Yzerman’s 5th year as General Manager while other teams have been out of the playoffs for that entire period.
Yzerman was hired as GM in TB on May 25, 2010. The team would make this EC finals in his first season but took a step back the following season and Yzerman rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
By the time, the Bolts reached the finals, only 2 players remained on the team that Yzerman has inherited 5 years prior.
Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman are a nice place to start but it was his subsequent moves that made the difference.
A couple of months ago, one of my favourite hockey writers, James Miracle of the Globe and Mail, took a look at how Yzerman has adapted what he learned in the Detroit organization and implemented it in Florida:
When he retired in 2006, he stepped immediately into the Wings’ front office, where he apprenticed for four years under Ken Holland, learning the off-ice side of the franchise his sweat and tears had helped build.
Where you see those four years in the Lightning is obvious. Tampa has become – along with the Anaheim Ducks – incredibly adept at finding talent in improbable places, which was a necessity for Detroit given Holland and Co. never had high picks.
An example: When no one was drafting Russian and Czech players, Yzerman loaded up, finding immense value in Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Nesterov and Vladislav Namestnikov, all of whom are playing in this postseason.
That was in the 2011 draft alone, with the Lightning picking 27th.
But it hasn’t been only about exploiting Europe. Tampa has also been downright fearless when it comes to focusing on skill over size, drafting more forwards under six feet tall than any other organization. That’s apparent even on the current roster, with the average forward typified by the likes of 5-foot-9 Tyler Johnson.
Even counting 6-foot-7 behemoth Brian Boyle, the Lightning’s average forward in these playoffs is under six feet tall and 195 pounds. Without him, they drop almost an inch and five pounds.
Overall, the team’s philosophy could be summed as the Search for Datsyuks: late picked, supremely skilled, overlooked players. A whole team of them, if they can find them.
The 2011 draft that Mirtle refers to could be arguably his first since Yzerman was hired only a short while before the 2010 draft so likely had little influence.
But it’s also instructive to look at his drafting after that.
In the 2012 draft, Yzerman used the 10th overall pick to take Slater Koekkoek despite Bob McKenzie having him ranked 16th.
It was one of the best drafts for defensemen in many a year and it appears that Yzerman picked a good one. Koekkoek has appeared in only 3 NHL games thus far but reports from his time in Syracuse of the AHL are glowing:
“We’re pretty happy with [his development] as an organization,” said Syracuse coach Rob Zettler, who played 569 NHL games as a defenseman. “He really needed to improve on his down-low defending game and he’s made a lot of strides in that area. He’s got a great plus/minus; he’s a guy that we count on the penalty kill and in late-game situations. His speed allows him to do a lot of things defensively, not just offensively.”
The Winchester, Ontario native is plus-12 on the season, tied for third among AHL rookie defensemen. In addition, Koekkoek paces Crunch defensemen in goals (five, tied), assists (19), points (24) and shots on goal (104).
Looks like an NHL player there but Yzerman didn’t leave the 2012 draft with just 1 solid prospect…he also picked up the top ranked goaltender in the draft, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has already established himself as a quality NHL backup.
But, wait, there’s more!
In the 4th round of that draft, Yzerman took a flyer on another smallish skilled player (see above) who was overlooked by nearly everyone else despite scoring 103 points in only 63 QMJHL games.
Cedric Paquette scored 12 goals 19 points (in 64 games) with the big club last season while playing 3rd line minutes.
That’s likely 3 NHL players in that draft (there could be others) after finding 4 the previous draft!
We’re now getting into the territory (the 2013 draft), where it’s a little early to be making calls on players drafted but I would wager the Lightning will walk away with at least 2 more NHL players.
Selecting 3rd in the draft, the Lightning took Jonathan Drouin, who despite being brought along slowly, has 70 NHL games to his credit while racking up 32 points. I don’t doubt he’ll take off sometime soon.
Then, in the second round, Yzerman took another flyer on Adam Erne, who exploded for 41 goals in his post draft season in the QMJHL.
But, perhaps an even bigger steal came in the 2014 draft…Yzerman again stuck with his “skill over size” mantra, selecting 5’11’ 177 defenseman Anthony DeAngelo.
All DeAngelo did last season in OHL was finish 13th in league scoring with 25 goals 89 points and did I mention…he’s a defenseman!
(for you Oiler fans stopping…by Darnel Nurse scored 13 goals and 50 points at the same age).
I’m sure DeAngelo will need some time to bulk up a bit but it appears there is something there.
Even more impressive than Yzerman’s draft record (if that’s possible) has been his ability to find undrafted players who have impressed at the NHL level.
Much has been said about Tyler Johnson who is among the elite, but Andrej Sustr has also been a solid contributor on the Lightning D.
Speaking of D, the Lightning had also been adept at procuring high end defensive players from other teams or in free agency, often at a bargain.
The most sought after UFA last season was Anton Stralman, who Yzerman signed to a VERY cap friendly deal of $4.5M over 4 years.
By way of contrast, the Edmonton Oilers singed an arguably inferior defenseman, Andrej Sekera, to a 6 year $5.5M contract just a year later.
At the time the contracts were signed, Stralman was 27. Sekera is 29.
The Stralman signing wasn’t in isolation, as Yzerman also acquired Matt Carle as a free agent, traded a couple of draft picks to Philly for Braydon Coburn and then sent Vancouver a late second round pick for Jason Garrison.
Let’s take a look at theTOI among Lightning D last season:
Hedman (1st round pick) 22:41
Stralman (UFA) 21:56
Carle (UFA) 20:29
Garrison (trade) 20:00
Sustr (undrafted UFA) 17:42
Coburn (trade) 17:01
That’s a very solid top 6 led by an elite #1C…anyone who tells you you can’t build a D outside of the draft just isn’t paying attention.
I believe you have to do everything you can to acquire than #1 guy, but filling out the rest of the roster doesn’t mean you have to spend years drafting and developing players who have no more than 2nd or 3rd pairing potential. They’re available every offseason to an astute GM.
We’ve mentioned the Lightning backup goaltender earlier but another big piece of the elite team Yzerman has built includes the trade where he shipped Cory Conacher to Ottawa for Ben Bishop.
The day the trade was made there was a hue and cry that Yzerman has made a major mistake…here’s a sampling and a link to some others:
Bishop won 40 of his 63 starts with the Lightning last season…Cory Conacher is the Swiss League.
Obviously Yzerman took the lessons he learned at the knee of Ken Holland to heart.
He built a team from the back end out and up the middle and then filled in the missing pieces with an inspired choice of draft pick and free agents.
Stamkos (1st overall 2008)
Johnson (undrafted UFA)
Brian Boyle (UFA signing)
Filpulla (UFA signing)
Killorn (3rd 2007 )
Paqeutte (4th round 2012)
Namestnikov (1st round 2011)
(note: not all of the these natural centres played the position last season)
Kucherov (2nd round 2011)
Erik Condra (UFA)
JT Brown (undrafted UFA)
Palat (7th round 2011)
Drouin (1st round 2013)
Tye McGinn (UFA signing)
On the surface, with the departure of Brendan Morrow, the Bolts would seem to be weak on LW but they have enough centres on the roster to move one over.
They also appear to be right up against the cap but have Mattias Ohlund’s contract on the books and can once again place him on LTIR when the season starts.
If Yzerman feels he is ready, I can see Adam Erne making the team in the fall or they may move a D (Coburn?) for cap relief and the chance to being in another winger.
In any event, the Lightning are one of the youngest teams in the league at 26.54 (only 6 teams are younger) so it’s highly likely that Yzerman’s brilliant rebuild will have long term sustainability and the Lightning will remain among the elite teams for an extended period.
Next up will look at the work of another Ken Holland disciple, Jim Nill, in Dallas.