Lightning’s Stanley Cup win highlights Steve Yzerman’s challenges with Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
 
| Detroit Free Press

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The 2020 Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning bear the wise and bold imprint of Steve Yzerman — and the footprint of a time when bad teams were not punished by a draft lottery.

When Yzerman left the Detroit Red Wings in 2010 to become the general manager in Tampa, the Lightning had missed the playoffs three straight years.

In 2007-08, the team finished last in the standings, automatically earning the first pick in the draft. That was used on Steven Stamkos.

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In 2008-09, the Lightning finished 29th, leading to the second overall pick. That was used on Victor Hedman.

Stamkos, the team captain since 2014, has endured multiple injuries but he still has recorded 832 points in 803 career games, tops in his draft class. Hedman celebrated the Lightning’s championship-clinching 2-0 victory Monday over the Dallas Stars at Edmonton’s Rogers Place with the Conn Smythe Trophy, the most valuable player of the playoffs. He led all defensemen with 10 goals.

In the late aughts the NHL hadn’t instituted a draft lottery, leading the worst teams in hockey to have first dibs at the best players in the draft classes. The lottery was ostensibly instituted to deter tanking, but the 2019-20 Wings didn’t tank — they were every bit as bad as their 17-49-5 record indicates, and still they hold the fourth pick in the first round of the 2020 draft, scheduled to be held virtually on Oct. 6.

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Yzerman took over a team with a solid foundation in Tampa, and forged it into a Cup contender with terrific draft picks and trades. (He left the organization in 2019 to return to the Wings, stepping back in the last year of his contract to hand the reins to then-assistant Julien BriseBois). Some of Yzerman’s best moves (one of which he already has used in Detroit) came in 2011, 2012 and 2014. 

At the 2011 draft, Yzerman selected Russian forward Nikita Kucherov at 58th overall. (The Wings whiffed on him three times in the second round, instead selecting Tomas Jurco at 35th, Xavier Ouellet at 48th and Ryan Sproul at 55th.)

Nobody, including the Lightning scouting staff, knew just how good Kucherov would be — he leads his draft class with 547 points in 515 games, a 1.06 points-per-game average that blows away first-overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ 0.73 average — but the bottom line is, Yzerman drafted a gem. Kucherov finished the 2020 playoffs with a league-best 34 points, one more than Brayden Point.

Point is another draft gem, a third-rounder from 2014 who, since entering the NHL in 2016, ranks third in his draft class with 262 points in 295 games. 

Yzerman struck gold with another acquisition between those two glorious draft picks. At the 2012 trade deadline, the Wings, then run by GM Ken Holland, were decimated by injuries to their blue line. Hopeful of making another Cup run — the team still had Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk — Holland engaged in a three-way trade with Yzerman and the Colorado Avalanche. Holland got defenseman Kyle Quincey, and the Lightning received the Wings’ first-round pick.

Yzerman was stockpiling future assets at the time, and used that asset to draft goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who just backstopped his team to the Cup with an 18-7 record (two of the victories came in the qualifying round) and a 1.90 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. 

Yzerman did something similar earlier this month when he used the Wings’ salary cap space to take on the expiring contract of defenseman Marc Staal in order to gain a second-round pick in 2021 in the trade with the New York Rangers.

Yzerman’s reign with the Lightning also showed his willingness to risk trading a top draft pick. In 2012-13 the Lightning finished 28th in the league, which, again, because there was no lottery, gave Yzerman the third overall pick. He used that selection on Jonathan Drouin. Four years later, Yzerman flipped Drouin in a package deal to Montreal for defense prospect Mikhail Sergachev. The 22-year-old had 10 points in 25 playoff games and ranked third among Lightning skaters with an average ice time of 22:37 minutes.

Yzerman’s moves in Tampa from 2010-2018 helped build the roster that ended a pandemic-delayed playoffs with hockey’s ultimate prize. He took over a good team, made it better — and still missed the playoffs three times. Yzerman’s tenure in Tampa shows the Wings are in good hands – but also just how hard it is to rebuild a team.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments that made the Detroit Red Wings will be published in October by Triumph Books. To preorder, go to Amazon.

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