There's this idea floating around that Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman 'laid the foundation' for Tampa Bay's Stanley Cup triumph. It’s not really true. Save some interior decorating, Yzerman built the whole thing. It's the same blueprint he'll try to follow in Detroit, and maybe with a better set of tools.
No disrespect to current Lighting GM Julien BriseBois, Yzerman’s hand-chosen replacement who helped Tampa finish the job. He deserves credit for extending both Andrei Vasilevskiy and Braydon Point last summer, as well as bringing in Kevin Shattenkirk. We understand the Lightning aren’t Stanley Cup champs without them.
But we’re disrespecting Yzerman if we don’t appreciate the team he left behind. Of Tampa Bay’s top five players in terms of point shares this season, Yzerman either acquired or extended all of them. Of its top 15 players, he either acquired of extended 13 of them. And he did it with just one top-5 draft pick in his nine years at the helm.
It’s true Yzerman walked into a better situation in Tampa than he did in Detroit. The Lightning handed him a No. 1 center and a 50-goal scorer in Steven Stamkos, and a future Norris Trophy -- and Conn Smythe Trophy -- winner in Victor Hedman. Not to mention a future Hall-of-Famer in Martin St. Louis who Yzerman would later trade for a couple high draft picks. The Wings handed him a broken wrench.
But hang with us. For one, Yzerman had to find a way to keep Stamkos and Hedman around when both were headed for free agency in 2016. He locked up Stamkos through 2024, Hedman through 2025. And then he locked up Alex Killorn through 2023, just for good measure. Yes, he had the upper hand in a state without income taxes. But in the face of a possible cap crunch, Yzerman never blinked.
Moreover, the Lightning were mostly done picking near the top of the draft when Yzerman arrived. This is where he’ll be better equipped in Detroit. Tampa’s highest average pick from 2010-18 was No. 22. Yzerman still managed to land the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli and Cedric Paquette. Vasilevskiy was the only first-rounder among them, 19th overall in 2012.
Yzerman’s lone top-five pick came in 2013. He took forward Jonathan Drouin third overall. When Drouin’s value peaked after a breakout season in 2016-17, Yzerman dealt him to the Canadiens for then-18-year-old defenseman Mikhail Sergachev. Let's ask the fans in Montreal how they feel about that trade, and now let's duck out of the way of that flying pot of coffee.
The Lightning’s blue line still wouldn’t be close to what it became without Ryan McDonagh, acquired from the Rangers in 2018; and to a lesser extent Erik Cernak, acquired from the Kings in 2017. And its core of forwards wouldn’t be close to what it became without Yanni Gourde, signed as an undrafted free agent in 2014, and Tyler Johnson, signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011.
So back to Tampa’s top 15 players this season. The only two Yzerman didn’t leave behind were Shattenkirk (No. 6) and backup goalie Curtis McIlhenney (No. 13). And Yzerman was responsible for all of Tampa’s top 10 scorers in the playoffs aside from Shattenkirk (No. 6) and Blake Coleman (No. 7), acquired by BriseBois in February.
And have we mentioned the man behind the bench? Yzerman appointed Jon Cooper head coach in 2013. All Cooper’s done since is lead the Lightning to four conference finals and two Cup finals, culminating in Monday’s long-awaited championship.
A foundation? That’s a foundation in so much as ribs are an hors d’oeuvre. The job is bigger in Detroit, where Yzerman took over a bottom-tier team without the makings of a top-tier core. Dylan Larkin and Filip Hronek are the best players he inherited from Ken Holland -- not exactly Stamkos and Hedman. (At least not yet!!) The Wings pivoted from chasing the playoffs too late, and their path to return got longer.
But Yzerman will have the kind of draft capital he never had in Tampa. He already had five picks in the top three rounds last year, and he’ll have six more this year, plus six more in 2021. That’s a total of 17 in his first three drafts – seven more than he had in the same time with the Lightning. He kicks off this year’s draft with the Wings’ highest pick since 1990.
The glut of second- and third-rounders is nothing new for Yzerman. He picked in that range often in Tampa. He missed a lot, as you will. He also found two-thirds of one the best lines in hockey in Kucherov and Point, plus a middle-six center in Cirelli. The third member of Tampa’s top line? Palat, a seventh-rounder in 2011.
In time, Yzerman will have to make a splash or two in free agency. He’ll have to spring a trade to chase the Cup. And if all goes well, he'll have to hand out big extensions to some of the pieces already in place. That will be the fun part. We know he's up to the task.
But right now, and for likely a couple more years, Yzerman's building straight through the draft. He has all the tools he needs, and the vision to bring this team to the same place he took his last one.