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Friday, Nov 17, 2017
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Yzerman's job: Remake Bolts into winners

TAMPA - There are new goaltenders, a bunch. If only they could all stand in the net at once. There are new draft picks. If only they could step onto the Forum ice tomorrow. There are the kids on the farm, which turned out an AHL juggernaut. Some are on the way, some aren't. There are the anchors, of course, Stamkos and St. Louis and Lecavalier. Above all, there's a need, a need to step back into the hunt after last season.
"I wouldn't say it was a wasted year, or that the clock is ticking," Lighting general manager Steve Yzerman said. But, deep down, it is, especially when it comes to goaltender. NHL free agency begins today. Don't expect the Lightning to be breaking open owner Jeff Vinik's piggy bank, though the club is roughly $19 million under the cap. Go figure. "We won't just use it to use it," Yzerman said. They were darlings two seasons ago, from Yzerman to coach Guy Boucher to all those miracle makers. Then they took a step back last season, a sizable one. "I would just look at us statistically," Yzerman said. "Our goaltending was at the bottom of the league. Our power play was at the bottom of the league, which was somewhat surprising. We couldn't keep the puck out of our net and we couldn't' score on the power play. I don't put it squarely on our goaltenders' shoulders. We struggled on defense." And Yzerman and the Lightning missed on Dwayne Roloson's second season. They passed on free agents. The plan was to ease Roloson out and Mike Smith in. But Smith would have none of it. He went to Phoenix, cleared his normally cluttered mind _ and won 50 games, regular season and playoffs combined, taking the Coyotes to the Western Conference Finals. Who saw that coming? Who? Now there are new goaltenders to go with Mathieu Garon, who was no great shakes last season. The biggest addition, in height and potential impact, is 6-6 Anders Lindback, who spent the last two seasons backing up Pekka Rinne in Nashville. Still, he has played only 38 NHL games. Is he a starter, a 40-game guy, a 50-game guy? They also chose goalie Andrey Vasilevskiy in the recent NHL draft, as if this franchise has ever developed a goalie. But at least there are options _ young options. Lindback is only 24. Yzerman wants his next No. 1 goaltender to grow with this team. Yes, free agency begins today, but don't expect the Bolts to be major players, despite that cap space, despite glaring needs on defense. You ought to have your _ and Sidney Crosby's _ head examined if you think that. Yzerman is sticking to his plan, and with the new collective bargaining agreement looming, with the landscape changing, lone-term deals for big money, well … "We haven't done one in the last two years, one of those super long contracts, it's not in our plan to do that," Yzerman said. "We see our young guys, who played so well in Norfolk last season. We have optIons. I do want to keep room for these young guys to make our roster. We're not going to be in a position of desperation, up front at least, where we have to overpay a guy just to bring him in." He likes his young guys. If that sounds cheap, consider that the Bolts' AHL Norfolk team set a record with 28 consecutive wins last season and then won the Calder Cup. That alone speaks to how Yzerman has reshaped this franchise. Now the big club needs to be re-shaped back into a winner again, a champion, That's the job. "Certainly I've been at this at two years and I've got a lot to prove," Yzerman said. "But I don't worry about that, I'm trying to build a Stanley Cup winning team. I'm going to do my best to do that. Are there going to be bumps during seasons, after seasons, after drafts, we should have done this, we should have done that? Everybody is going to do that. You'd drive yourself crazy if you dwelled on it. You learn from the good and bad, why things worked, why they didn't. You just keep moving along and you try to get better." Time will tell. Tick tock.
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