DETROIT – Detroit Red Wings fans are getting what they want.
When he left his job as GM in Tampa, the hockey world was shocked. Why would Yzerman leave what appeared to be the ideal situation with the Lightning? The team was on the cusp of a great season, and they lived up to those expectations with a record-tying 62 wins, and it was Yzerman who built the squad.
No one expected them to get swept out of the playoffs in such a stunning fashion in the first round -- or did Yzerman know something the rest of us didn't? If he were still at the team's helm come NHL trade deadline, would things have gone differently for the Bolts? That will remain one of the biggest and perhaps most frustrating mysteries in Tampa's history.
Detroit rumors persisted all year
Rumors immediately swirled that Yzerman would be returning "home" to Detroit, the place where he helped the Red Wings build a perennial Stanley Cup contending team. He captained the historic Original Six franchise back to glory, winning three championships before his illustrious 23-year NHL career ended in 2006.
Detroit's chosen son was coming back to right the ship, everyone said. It would be an epic tale, everyone thought. It didn't help that reports soon surfaced that Yzerman told the Lightning players he wanted to be in Detroit with his family. The guy still needed a job, right? So where else would he get one?
When he arrived in Tampa
To no one's surprise, a career after his playing days started immediately for Yzerman. He moved into the Red Wings front office as vice president and alternate governor, working alongside Ken Holland to help the Red Wings win another Stanley Cup in 2008.
He took the job in Tampa back in 2010 when the Lightning had missed the playoffs for a third-straight season. The winning teams of Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis were fading away. That 2004 Stanley Cup championship was starting to feel like ancient history. Tampa needed a rebuild, but first they needed an architect.
Yzerman stepped in and immediately got to work. He made a real splash when he traded Matt Walker and a 4th-round pick for scorer Simon Gagné. Then Yzerman stole veteran goalie Dwayne Roloson in a January trade that sent away defenseman Ty Wishart. Roloson helped the Lightning not only return to the playoffs for the first time in four years, but the team rode him all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
It was clear right away that Steve Yzerman had been prepared to step into a GM position and be very aggressive about it. He was ready to build a winner in the NHL -- something he was already doing with Team Canada.
Building around Stamkos
At the time Yzerman arrived in south Florida, Steven Stamkos already was establishing himself as a true talent. The 1st overall draft pick in 2008 was proving himself to be a speedy player with an elite ability to find the back of the net. Stamkos had just scored 51 goals and 44 assists as a 19-year-old. He was the obvious centerpiece for the Lightning's future, a position Yzerman knew all too well.
The rest of the team was aging. A 34-year-old St. Louis was second on the squad in points in 2009-10, and there were 17 players age 27 or older. Yzerman worked quickly to bring in talent, making enough noise in that first season to be nominated for the NHL General Manager of the Year Award, but it was his drafting that would set the team apart.
Building through the draft
While it's true scouts are responsible for a lot of what goes on in the NHL Entry Draft, it's still the GM who makes the final call. In the 2011 draft, Yzerman selected winger Nikita Kucherov in the second round, 58th overall. Kucherov has become one of the most dominant goal scorers in the game, with a hockey IQ second to few.
The lightning then selected Ondrej Palat in the seventh round -- he has 287 points in 427 career games. And the hits kept coming for Yzerman -- Brayden Point was a 4th-round pick; Mathieu Joseph was a 4th-round pick; Anthony Cirelli was taken in the 3rd round; Cedric Paquette was a 4th-rounder.
Yzerman was finding the pieces to his team in late rounds, something every NHL general manager dreams about but few can achieve with consistency.
Not afraid to deal
Yzerman was building through the draft as good as anyone, but he also wasn't afraid to deal players away if he didn't see a fit. Perhaps his most iconic moment as Tampa GM was when he sent his 3rd-overall 2013 draft pick, Jonathan Drouin, packing for the AHL for a conditioning stint after an injury. Yzerman was not about special treatment -- he wanted Drouin to work his way back into the Lightining lineup.
But the kid and his agent had other ideas. Statements were coming out from the Drouin camp about how unhappy he was about his ice time in Tampa, expressing frustration with Yzerman's decision to send him down to the AHL.
When Drouin failed to report to a Syracuse Crunch's game in January 2016, things got heated. He apparently wanted a trade, but Yzerman was not biting. He waited all the way until the next summer to move Drouin, knowing he needed to move one of his forwards to bolster the team's blue line.
In another great move, Yzerman sent Drouin to the Montreal Canadiens for defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and a second-round pick. It was another moment when the rest of the league had to take a step back and say, "Steve Yzerman is just better at this than we are."
Lightning stronger than ever despite falling short
The Lightning became a force in the Atlantic Division during Yzerman's tenure, winning the division twice, making three trips to the conference finals and a trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 2015, where they fell to the high-powered Chicago Blackhawks in six games. They ran away with the President's Trophy this season, breaking and tying NHL team records, one of which Yzerman's Red Wings set back in 1995-96. That year the Red Wings won 62 games, only to fall short in the playoffs against the Colorado Avalanche.
What a way for the Lightning to go out after Yzerman left, tying his record only to meet the same fate in the post season. It's the kind of thing that makes fan bases believe in curses.
In reality, despite that awful playoff face plant, Tampa is just getting started. Yzerman put the pieces in place to make the Lightning a strong opponent for years to come. While their 2018-19 playoffs appearance is one of the most disappointing in recent NHL history, the team's future still looks bright thanks to smart drafting and even better trades. Changes this offseason for the Lightning probably won't be too severe. They have built the team around Stamkos, just as Yzerman wanted to do when he arrived.
As for Stamkos, he is a much more complete player now. He's not just a goal scorer. He plays the game at 200 feet, helping the Lightning become dominant offensively and defensively as well. That's an achievement everyone seems to credit to Yzerman, who had to make the same adjustments in his career when Scotty Bowman arrived on the Detroit bench. There's no question he offered his star player some advice.
Back with the Red Wings
As we prepare to welcome Yzerman back to Detroit as Red Wings GM, fans can expect a seasoned exec who knows how to build a team for winning in this league right now. It's a young, fast league where the youngest players are becoming the stars. Yzerman knows this better than anyone, and he knows it takes some adjustments to get it just right. Again, it would have been nice to see what changes he could have made at the deadline this year -- maybe the Lightning would still be playing.
The Red Wings have young budding stars -- Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi -- and an identity starting to take shape. Holland has done what he can to put some draft picks in place -- Yzerman will have 11 to make this summer. He will come back to Detroit with other decisions to make, too. It appears it's time the Red Wings get real about building up this squad before their young assets are too much older. Larkin is the default next Red Wings captain, and it's his style and composure that would help lure a talented GM like Yzerman. You could expect a captaincy announcement sooner than later.
Red Wings fans can celebrate for now, but there is a lot of work that still needs to be done. At least they have a man in charge who has been through this before.