Steve Yzerman, long removed from the NHL trenches, won’t skate a single shift in the Stanley Cup finals. But the Hall of Famer’s imprint will be all over the two most important players in the series that gets underway on Wednesday night in Tampa (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA).
The legendary Red Wings captain and current general manager of the Lightning helped shape the leadership style and mental approach of both Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and his Tampa Bay counterpart, Steven Stamkos. What they’ve learned from him will shape this series and its outcome.
“Knowing both players, they’re different,” Yzerman said during Tuesday’s media day festivities in Tampa. “They have a couple things really in common. They’re really good people, very high-character guys. They’re both pretty humble. They’re confident but humble guys. There’s some comparison there. They’re different types of players.”
They’re also at different stages of their careers. Toews has already established himself as the game’s premier leader, laser-focused and capable of elevating his play, and that of his teammates, when it matters most. It’s a style that has drawn comparisons to Yzerman.
“Jonathan’s bigger, stronger, better ... faster,” Yzerman said when asked about them. “He just is a tremendous all-around player.
“Over the course of my career, my play evolved,” he added. “Through Scotty Bowman’s [teaching], the way he wanted our team to play, all of us became more defensive-minded players, more well-rounded players. Jonathan’s been that from Day 1. He’s just a complete hockey player.”
Toews attempted to deflect the praise, saying Yzerman was simply offering a compliment. But the comparisons between the two are fairly on point. Both men’s careers are testaments to team and personal success. Over 22 remarkable seasons, Yzerman won three Stanley Cups with Detroit, one Conn Smythe Trophy and one Selke. He scored 1,755 career points, seventh on the all-time list, and was a unanimous first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Toews won’t break break into that upper echelon of scorers—the game is different now than it was during Yzerman’s heyday—but the 27-year-old is well on his way to surpassing his hero in every other way. He already has won two Cups, a Smythe and a Selke and is in position to increase each of those totals by one before this month is out. He also owns a pair of Olympic gold medals that he earned playing for Team Canada in 2010 and 2014.
Teams, not coincidentally, that were built by Yzerman.
Like Yzerman, Toews has that rare ability to seize the big moment. Not because he wants it for himself, but because that’s what his team needs.
Look back at Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. It’s one the Hawks eventually lost in overtime to Anaheim, yet it was defined by Toews and his determination. He scored twice in the last two minutes of regulation to tie the game at four, sending a message to both his team and the Ducks that the Hawks would not go quietly. He followed that up by being a dominant force on the ice in Games 6 and 7, willing Chicago from the brink of extinction to the Cup finals.
“For me, it comes down to making a difference on the ice,” Toews said. “Going into the postseason, there’s different challenges and moments you have to embrace.”
It’s promising for the Hawks that he seems poised to embrace this one. Toews enters the finals playing his best hockey of the postseason. He has scored five goals in his past four games and now stands tied for fourth in postseason tallies with nine, and tied for fifth in points with 18.
That’s typical Toews. “He just seems to excel in the big moments,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “He’s as good a leader as there is in any sport. Whenever we need him, he steps up.”
Stamkos hopes to be that player someday. For now, though, this is virgin territory. It’s not only his first trip to the Cup finals, it’s his first full season as captain of the Lightning.
Like Toews, Stamkos benefits from the support of a veteran leadership group. Ryan Callahan and Brenden Morrow, both former captains themselves, have been invaluable resources. But having Yzerman on hand to lean on, to learn from, has been critical to the process of becoming the player Stamkos wants to be.
“He’s always there when I need him,” Stamkos said. “He's seen it all, done it all. To have someone like that around makes everything easier.”
Despite his relative inexperience, Stamkos has shown a natural aptitude for the job. He possesses an understated intensity and a nasty streak that bubbles barely under the surface. As he’s proved in these playoffs, he can lead in ways that aren’t measured on the score sheet.
Like Yzerman in Detroit, Stamkos has redefined his role for the betterment of his team. An elite scorer since being selected with the first pick in the 2008 draft, he’s learning to be a player who can be as reliable defending a lead in the final minute as he is when his team is trying to tie a game.
That role was redefined again midway through Tampa Bay’s second-round series against the Canadiens when the natural center was asked to move to right wing by Lightning coach Jon Cooper.
“I thought he was spending too much time in the d-zone and way too much energy down there,” Cooper explained. “And so to free him up a little bit, get him out of the zone a little bit faster, I thought it was something that was going to save his legs and give him more time and space in the neutral zone.”
“[I'm] willing to do whatever it takes," Stamkos said. "And it’s worked out so far.”
Clearly. Through the first eight games of the playoffs, he was held to just three assists. In the 12 games since, he’s been almost unstoppable, scoring seven goals and 14 points.
“He's put the team ahead of himself throughout this run,” Cooper said. “To watch him not have the [scoring] success everyone expects him to have all the time and to fight through that and do what he's doing for us now, despite all the pressure from the media ... it says a ton about what that kid's all about.”
How Stamkos performs in this series will say even more. Toews already is at Yzerman’s level. Stamkos hopes to be there someday. He’ll take some major steps here.
The numbers game
• The Lightning, who beat the Blackhawks 7–3 in the Tampa Bay's first NHL game on Oct. 7, 1992, have won six of their last seven tilts against Chicago dating back to March 9, 2011.
• The Blackhawks are making their 13th appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, and third in the past six seasons. Their five championships are tied for fifth all time with the Oilers behind the Canadiens (24), Maple Leafs (14), Red Wings (11) and Bruins (6).
• Tampa Bay led the NHL with 262 goals during the regular season while Chicago ranked tied for first in fewest goals-against (189). The Blackhawks enter the Cup finals ranked second with 56 goals (3.29 GPG). The Lightning are third at 55 (2.75 GPG). The two teams are a combined 18-1 when scoring first during this postseason and 15-0 when leading after two periods. Chicago, at 32-0, remains the only team to have not lost after entering a third period with a lead.