Lightning, Steve Yzerman are making the right moves as they contend with the Capitals

Hall of Fame forward Steve Yzerman is in his first year as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, which has the fourth-best record in the East entering Friday's game against the Washington Capitals.
Hall of Fame forward Steve Yzerman is in his first year as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, which has the fourth-best record in the East entering Friday's game against the Washington Capitals. (Dirk Shadd - St. Petersburg Times)
By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2010; 12:24 AM

Last April, at the conclusion of a third consecutive losing season, the Tampa Bay Lightning faced the reality of another missed playoff berth and transitioning to a third ownership group in four years.

For players such as veteran all-star forward Martin St. Louis, who had endured three rough years with the Lightning and wanted to move past the rebuilding stage, it seemed like Tampa Bay was an organization without a plan.

But when the team's new owner, Jeff Vinik, in May hired Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman to be the team's general manager, it sent a message to the players and the rest of the NHL that the Lightning was serious about re-establishing its former glory.

"I was hearing good things about the new ownership, but I didn't know what they were going to do. I just couldn't go through a negative experience again," said St. Louis, who signed a four-year contract extension worth $22.5 million this summer. "Once they hired Yzerman and he told me his plan, I knew this is what the franchise needed. I was just excited for the team and optimistic to be part of the plan moving forward in Tampa."

Over the past three seasons, the Lightning existed in a relatively constant state of flux, bearing little resemblance to the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2003-04 as it has failed to make the playoffs since 2006-07 and amassed an 89-118-39 record in that span. But since Vinik installed Yzerman to restructure the roster and develop a plan to help Tampa Bay win again, the team has been revitalized.

The Lightning visits the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center for a post-Thanksgiving matinee Friday as one of the hottest teams in the NHL. Winners of its past five contests, Tampa Bay sits in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, four points behind the Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers, who are atop the standings. Steven Stamkos and St. Louis are two of the top four scorers in the league with 38 and 29 points, respectively.

"We're starting to find our place," said Stamkos, who has 21 goals in 22 games. "The expectations are really high for us, but we all believe in ourselves and are playing with confidence. The past couple years have been rough, but that someone like Steve Yzerman or [Coach] Guy Boucher knew the situation and still wanted to come here and be a part of trying to get things back on track, that they understood we wanted to win meant a lot."

During his 22-year playing career, Yzerman knew he would eventually want to manage a hockey team. He followed movements and transactions of teams and how they developed winning organizations across all sports, and when Yzerman retired as a player, Detroit General Manager Ken Holland and the Red Wings invited him to work and learn the business for himself in their front office as a vice president.

Yzerman spent four years observing how the Red Wings, one of the most perennially competitive franchises in the NHL, approached the entry draft, trade-deadline day and free agency signings. He assembled gold-medal winning teams for Hockey Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics and the 2007 IIHF World Championships. When Vinik called at the conclusion of last year's season, a few discussions about the type of team both men wanted to build convinced Yzerman that Tampa Bay was where he should take his first job as an NHL general manager.

"I always had the inclination, had always been intrigued about running a team," Yzerman said. "But being the person in the chair, making all the decisions and going through this all for the first time, there's some apprehension about, obviously, wanting to make the best decision possible. This is an ongoing process that's going to take time, but our goal is to build a team that will annually compete in the playoffs. That is a challenge that can take a long time, but it starts out with little things, like what's happened so far."

Yzerman acknowledged that he benefited from the Lightning's previous struggles, which yielded high draft picks that turned into Stamkos (first overall in 2008) and Victor Hedman (second overall in 2009) to go along with veteran leaders St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and the blue-collar presences of Ryan Malone and Steve Downie.

He made sought-after Boucher coach, traded for Simon Gagne, who has missed all but six games this year with a neck injury but will add to an already-strong offense when healthy, revamped the defense with three additions (Brett Clark, Pavel Kubina and Randy Jones) and brought in another goaltender (Dan Ellis) among other moves.

Most importantly, the steady approach to building a lasting foundation for the Lightning brought in fresh optimism that has translated into wins this season.

"Yzerman's arrival just calmed everything down immediately," St. Louis said. "The first thing that you felt as a player was a little bit of respect for the team. Time will prove how he's going to do as a general manager, and we'll have to earn more respect around the league with our play, but there's a positive feeling around the team again now. It kind of reminds me of the [Stanley] Cup year's team."

Capitals note: Mike Knuble, who suffered a broken jaw when a shot by Eric Fehr hit him in the face in Washington's game in Atlanta on Nov. 19, said he expects to play Friday.

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