NHL playoffs 2011: Steve Yzerman coming of age as hockey executive


General Manager Steve Yzerman, right, with assistant coach Wayne Fleming, has helped guide the Lightning to a playoff sweep of the top-seeded Capitals and a berth in the Eastern Conference finals. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

My first introduction to Steve Yzerman was as “YounGyzerman,” emphasis on that hard “g” right in the middle. That’s what former Wings great Sid Abel called him on the team’s radio broadcasts in 1983, when Yzerman and I were both rookies in Detroit. Yet somehow he’s five years younger than me. Go figure.

I worked nights and heard a lot of calls like “YounGyzerman has the puck, he shoots, he SCORES!” Detroiters still refer to him as Young Yzerman, so ingrained is the nickname, even though he’s now 45 years old. He did indeed shoot and score — 39 times that rookie season alone — and is sixth on the NHL’s career scoring list. The humble and talented Canadian very quickly became the darling of Motown — and eventually, he helped turn it into Hockeytown, USA.

Now, Yzerman has brought his magic touch to Florida — to Tampa, specifically, where his Lightning swept the Capitals to advance to the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Bruins.

Yzerman is one of three finalists for the NHL’s general manager of the year (Vancouver’s Mike Gillis and Nashville’s David Poile are the others). Even among the trio, he’s still Young Yzerman. Poile, 62, is a front-office vet, having served 15 years in Washington alone; Gillis, 52, has been with the Canucks for three years.

“It’s a funny time of year” for awards, Yzerman said. “You’re wrapped up in the playoffs, and I think in some cases a lot of things should be assessed at the end of the year. It’s been a good year for our organization to date. We’re excited about the direction we’re headed but . . . it’s kind of not something you really think about.”

Yzerman earned the nomination by a major revamping of the Lightning, starting with the hiring of Coach Guy Boucher out of the American Hockey League. Boucher led the Lightning to a 23-point improvement in the standings in one season and the second-best record in franchise history.

During less than 12 months on the job, Yzerman also re-signed Martin St. Louis, signed Pavel Kubina and Brett Clark, traded for Simon Gagne, and signed goaltender Dan Ellis to a two-year deal.

That last move was one of the rare missteps. Last September, Ellis complained via his Twitter account about the 24 percent pay cut NHL players took when the 2004-05 lockout was settled with a new collective bargaining agreement — this despite a two-year, $3 million contract with Tampa Bay. Eventually he apologized via a statement released by the team, but that behavior was not going to sit well with the man Detroit called simply “The Captain.”

On New Year’s Day, the Lightning acquired 41-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson despite his 6-13-1 record with the New York Islanders. The veteran repaid Yzerman’s confidence by going 18-12-4 for the Lightning; his first game was a shutout of the Capitals, in fact.

“I didn’t see it as taking a chance,” Yzerman said. “He’s played well; he was playing very well. We were trying to improve our team, and we felt that he would improve our team.”

Roloson certainly did that. He is 8-3 in the playoffs, with a .941 save percentage and a 2.01 goals-against average, tops in the league in both categories for goalies who have played significant minutes.

“When they got Dwayne Roloson, they became a completely different team,” Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Yzerman’s success in Tampa Bay is hardly surprising; he’s been successful every step of his career, winning three Stanley Cups with the Red Wings while earning the reputation as one of the great captains in team sports.

He’s still got a little of The Captain in him. When Tampa Bay fell behind the Penguins three games to one in the first round, Yzerman gave a rare pep talk to the team at its Pittsburgh hotel. The Bolts rallied to win the series.

He has won an Olympic gold medal as a player (in 2002) and guided Team Canada to the gold last year at the Vancouver Games as general manager. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009. But there was no room to move up the ladder in the Wings’ front office, where Ken Holland is firmly entrenched as GM. So Yzerman knew that if he wanted to run his own team, he had to end his 27-year relationship with the Red Wings. Nearly a year later, does it still feel strange to be with a different franchise?

“Yeah,” Yzerman said. “But once the season starts, you get wrapped up in the job you’re doing and you get rolling and you’re successful and you’re driven.”

He also admits he misses Detroit, saying, “Oh, yeah. I get back a lot.”

And when he does, I’m sure someone calls him “YounGyzerman” at least once a day. Hey, it beats “OlDyzerman.”

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