By Stu Hackel
When Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik hired Steve Yzerman as GM last May, his first hope was that Yzerman's lofty stature in the NHL would help restore confidence in the franchise among its fans, something that had been destroyed by the unpredictable and underfunded previous ownership group. But Yzerman's astute moves have shown that he's more than a stabilizing figure. He's among the sharpest managers in the game.
Yzerman's latest coup was last weekend's trade for goalie Dwayne Roloson, the 41-year-old who was probably the Islanders' most valuable player in the first half of their mostly miserable season. Even though Roloson was playing well, not many GMs would trade for an old netminder whose shelf life could expire at any time. But Yzerman knew he needed reliable goaltending, which he wasn't getting consistently from his tandem of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis.
In fact, when Smith hurt his knee in mid-December, Yzerman called up Cedrick Desjardins from AHL Norfolk, and when he was inserted into his first two NHL games last week, the 25-year-old rookie stopped 61 of 63 shots while beating the Canadiens and the Rangers while allowing only one goal in each game. Desjardins instantly looked like the Bolts' best goalie. But Yzerman doesn't want to rush him into the NHL even though his play underscored that a move in Tampa Bay's goal was necessary.
And while some thought that Islanders GM Garth Snow might wait until the trade deadline, when an auction for Roloson's services might have brought more in return, Yzerman was able to pry the veteran away for big, mobile defenseman Ty Wishart, a 2006 first-round pick, two months early.
It was a strange move on one level, considering that the Isles were playing their best hockey of the season and trading Roloson left them with the oft-injured Rick DiPietro -- who, sure enough, got hurt again on Monday night -- backed up by Nathan Lawson, whose NHL experience currently totals all of 99 minutes. But Snow believed it was "the best offer we would have gotten for him, and I believe it was the best deal even if we had waited."
Yzerman was clearly very persuasive.
In his maiden voyage for the Lightning on Tuesday night, Roloson shut out the Capitals, 1-0, on an overtime goal by Marty St. Louis (video). Roloson stopped all 34 Washington shots, including this sequence in the second period, while showing some excellent lateral mobility...
...en route to his 25th career shutout. Here's some postgame video from the Lightning telecast and the NHL Network:
Roloson will be back in goal tonight (Wednesday) when the Lightning travel to Pittsburgh to play the other team from the Winter Classic.
The NHL Network panel praised Yzerman for identifying that his team needed a solid goalie. What went unexplored was how the Lightning came to identify Roloson as their target, and that comes down to pro scouting. It's an important area that stays well under the radar of most fans, but Yzerman bolstered Tampa Bay's hockey department shortly after he got the job by hiring Pat Verbeek to head up its pro scouting. Verbeek had spent the last four seasons as a pro scout for the Red Wings and Yzerman knew of his ability to assess talent. Along with Greg Malone, who is the lightning's chief scout, you can bet Verbeek and Yzerman evaluated all potentially available goalies before settling on Roloson.
This trade is only the latest of Yzerman's accomplishments for Tampa Bay. None of them have been blockbusters, almost all of them have paid off handsomely.
Yzerman's first order of business after he took the GM job was getting St. Louis's name on a new contract -- which some thought would be difficult, given how far the Lightning had fallen and because Yzerman had not selected St. Louis for Team Canada before the Vancouver Olympics. But Yzerman said and did all the right things, and St. Louis's leadership and production (17 goals -- and 34 assists, second most in the NHL to Henrik Sedin's 41) have been essential in the Lightning's run to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Yzerman's hiring of Guy Boucher, considered the brightest young coach in the game, has also proven to be a master stroke. Not every first year GM would be bold enough to choose a coach who had never been behind an NHL bench, but Boucher has quickly earned the players' respect and has gotten them to play an effective and entertaining puck pressure system. And to help ease Boucher's transition, Yzerman hired Wayne Fleming as assistant coach. Fleming had been on Team Canada's coaching staff under Yzerman and an NHL assistant for five clubs as well as a head coach in the KHL.
Yzerman also went about strengthening the Lightning's defense corps, bringing back Pavel Kubina and adding Brett Clark and Randy Jones. His trade for winger Simon Gagne, Yzerman's highest profile acquisition, has not yet panned out because Gagne is contending with health issues and still regaining his timing, but adding hard-skating role players like Sean Bergenheim and Dominic Moore provided Boucher with depth and an added dimension up front to complement the high-powered offense of St. Louis and Steven Stamkos. There are also the threats posed by Ryan Malone and Vinny Lecavalier, two veterans who know where the net is.
Yzerman obviously benefited from having young up-and-coming stars like Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman on the roster before he arrived, but his keeping and adding some important veterans has played a large role in creating a winning environment and reversing the Lightning's fortunes. By grabbing Roloson, Yzerman has again shown that he's capable of striking a small deal that can make a big difference.