TAMPA — As the Lightning bolt back into the postseason following a two-year absence, their return was blazed four years ago when Steve Yzerman assumed the helm of the franchise.
Though there were bumps along the way, Yzerman never swayed from the framework he laid out when he was hired, preaching patience and development. Now, his team is in prime position to be a perennial participant in playoff hockey.
The first step takes place tonight as Tampa Bay hosts the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs with 13 players who were either drafted by the Lightning or signed as undrafted college free agents and developed by the team in some capacity.
“I think our team is moving in the right direction, and probably as coaches and management you will probably never be truly satisfied,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “But I think this has probably been a little bit of our coming-out party. The next step is to make sure we stay in the party.’’
The Yzer-plan was put into practice immediately and is now reaping rewards.
“The strategy with Steve was to draft well, develop well, be patient and have a lot of homegrown talent that will form the nucleus of hopefully a great hockey team for a number of years,” Lightning owner Jeff Vinik said. “So far, so good, it looks like. Maybe even faster than I would have expected. It gives me great faith that we can hopefully be at the beginning of a long run of having really competitive hockey teams.’’
When Yzerman was hired by Vinik in May 2010, he sold the Lightning owner on the plan Yzerman formulated before leaving the Detroit organization, a philosophy he developed for four years while serving as an executive with the Red Wings under the tutelage of general manager Ken Holland.
That plan was laid out publicly during Yzerman’s first news conference, when he said “patience” and “discipline” were required to let players develop.
Yzerman showed that discipline, not sacrificing high draft picks or young talent in the name of a quick fix. Even after the unexpected run to the 2011 Eastern Conference finals and coming within one victory of reaching the Stanley Cup finals, Yzerman let the team’s increasing stable of talented prospects develop and grow within the farm system. Yzerman overhauled the scouting staff, putting it in the hands of former Hockey Canada head amateur scout Al Murray.
“I think, absolutely, that Steve had a vision and he knew that they couldn’t play in the free-agent market, that they had to go out there and develop their own players,’’ NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said. “Al Murray is one of the better evaluators of amateur talent in the world, and he’s done a fantastic job identifying those players. They have done a really good job from the amateur level and the development level.’’
Gone are Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis — the final ties to the 2004 Stanley Cup championship team. In their place are scoring sensation Steven Stamkos — the new face of the franchise — and defensive anchor Victor Hedman, both top draft picks. They are buoyed by a host of 20-somethings including Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, Richard Panik, Alex Killorn and J.T. Brown — all of whom came up through the system before making significant impacts on the NHL team this season.
“We would love to have another great playoff run this year,” Yzerman said. “But the plan will stay the same, and that is to develop our young players, to be patient with them and try to retain our core guys and see if we can add through free agency.’’
The stars started to align for the Lightning in 2011-12, when Tampa Bay’s American Hockey League affiliate in Norfolk went on a record run in the second half of the regular season, winning the final 28 games of the season before winning a Calder Cup championship. Seven members of that team are on Tampa Bay’s roster with another, Cory Conacher, used in the trade to acquire goaltender Ben Bishop last season.
It all started from that grass-roots level.
“I truly believe when we won the Calder Cup, that’s when I was kind of like, ‘This organization that has it going on,’ ” said Cooper, who led Norfolk to the title in 2012 and was promoted to Tampa Bay toward the end of last season.
This season’s blend of draft picks and free agent veterans could be the first step in Tampa Bay becoming an upper-echelon team, one that will compete for a postseason spot for the foreseeable future.
“This does kind of feel like we are going in the right direction, it doesn’t feel like a one-and-done situation,’’ said Stamkos, the team’s captain. “We have so many young guys coming up that have played amazing this year that are going to be in this organization for a long time. We have the goaltender, we’ve got the veteran core.
“It finally feels like we are going in the right direction that Steve wanted to from the beginning, and it’s exciting.”