Forgive Steve Yzerman. He’s less impressed by his Tampa Bay Lightning than the rest of the world is. It takes more than a healthy run at the Presidents’ Trophy to elevate this GM’s heart rate. Call it the byproduct of three Stanley Cup rings, a Conn Smythe Trophy, a Selke Trophy, a Ted Lindsay Award and three Olympic gold medals, one as a player and two as chief roster architect.
So when Yzerman learns in mid-March THN has chosen Tampa Bay as 2015 Stanley Cup champ, he doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t care if his team sits three points back of Montreal for the Eastern Conference’s best record. Bigger things to worry about? More like smaller things.
“We’re talking today, and we’ve yet to clinch a playoff spot,” Yzerman said. “You might be thinking Stanley Cup. We’re not. We’re just trying to make the playoffs.”
Yzerman has accomplished enough to never get ahead of himself, and the Bolts haven’t done much yet under his watch. He was hired in 2010 and they reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final a year later, but that wasn’t his team. He brought in aging goalie Dwayne Roloson for a Cinderella run, but most of the roster came from Jay Feaster and Brian Lawton.
The current Lightning incarnation is very much Yzerman’s, aside from pillars Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, and anyone would’ve taken those two with the first and second overall pick in 2008 and 2009, respectively. The Yzerman regime drafted Andrei Vasilevskiy, Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. It traded for Ben Bishop and Ryan Callahan. It discovered Tyler Johnson and signed Anton Stralman and Valtteri Filppula. Tampa is where it is today because of Yzerman’s handiwork.
And Yzerman’s Bolts aren’t yet where he wants them to be, having lost to Montreal in four straight games last spring after Bishop dislocated his elbow days before the playoffs, derailing a Vezina Trophy-caliber season. But just because Yzerman thinks Cup talk is premature doesn’t mean we have to agree. Instead we elect to accuse him of modesty – and build a case for Tampa Bay to win its second Stanley Cup.
SUPREME FORWARD DEPTH AND FIREPOWER
The Lightning’s 3.18 goals per game tops the NHL by a wide margin, with second-place Dallas at 3.05 and 28 teams below 3.00. The primary reason Tampa lights the lamp like no other team? It has the luxury of two first lines. Stamkos and Callahan have spent almost the entire season together, usually with Filppula, and that trio has 74 combined goals. The “second” line of 2013-14 Calder Trophy second runner-up Tyler Johnson between Nikita Kucherov and 2013-14 Calder runner-up Ondrej Palat is arguably the best in the sport. They’ve tallied 69 goals and, thanks to their tremendous speed and positioning, have been as much of a force defensively as offensively. That all-world prospect Jonathan Drouin has toiled on the third line most of the year speaks volumes about Tampa’s depth. With six games left, nine Lightning forwards had 12 goals or more.
VASTLY IMPROVED DEFENSE
*In the days after we sent our playoff preview magazine to press, Tampa lost Jason Garrison and Andrej Sustr to injury. But given Sustr will return in time for the playoffs and Garrison and Braydon Coburn have strong chances to, our Cup prediction remains the same.
The Lightning retained many of the pieces that got them back to the post-season last year but didn’t just sit on that group hoping for improvement from within. Trading for Jason Garrison last June brought a booming point shot into the fray. Advanced stats darling Stralman has earned every cent of his five-year, $22.5-million deal so far, too.
“Our pro scouts said Stralman is a solid, intelligent right-hand shot, a responsible, good defenseman they recommended signing, and that’s what we did,” Yzerman said.
Yzerman didn’t rest when knee surgery derailed hard-nosed blueliner Radko Gudas, either. A high-risk, high-reward deadline trade sent Gudas, a first-round pick and a third-round pick to Philadelphia for minutes eater Braydon Coburn.
“Our goal at the start of the year was to improve our club defensively,” Yzerman said. “That was our No. 1 priority. And for the most part, up until the trade deadline, our statistics proved we were improved defensively, but we still felt that, ‘You know what? We can be bigger, and we can improve again, and we can be a stronger defensive team.’
“So what we liked about Braydon Coburn is that we feel he can play a lot of minutes against the other teams’ top two lines. We felt we had a bit of a void there. And adding a guy that’s big, that can skate and defends well would make us a stronger team.”
Once Coburn returns from his lower-body injury, he’ll join a group led by hulking Swede Hedman, who has become the elite two-way force he was always supposed to be. Matthew Carle is an underrated rusher, too. The versatile blueline, when at full strength, blends outstanding size and puck-moving ability. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Coburn is the third-biggest starter. Hedman clocks in at 6-foot-6 and 230. Andrej Sustr is Zdeno Chara Lite at 6-foot-7 and 220.
The Bolts got better defensively up front, too, by signing center Brian Boyle and veteran Brenden Morrow, formerly a first-liner but more of a grinding and experienced checker in his 15th NHL season. Yzerman said he liked Boyle’s 6-foot-7 frame, faceoff ability and penalty killing and that Morrow’s leadership was a huge selling point. So these Bolts are significantly tougher to play against, so much so that they resemble the Western Conference mold. Callahan’s combination of bruising hits and scoring looks a lot like Dustin Brown’s in L.A. The Kings have Drew Doughty to dominate play at both ends of the ice from the back end, and Hedman has almost reached that upper echelon. Palat gives Tampa a legit Selke candidate in the top six, just as Anze Kopitar does the Kings every year. And while Jeff Carter is a threat to take over a game with his deadly sniping skills, the Lightning have a far deadlier shooter in Stamkos. Yzerman issued a firm “no” when asked if he’s tried to emulate the West team model. Coincidence or not, though, it’s always a good thing to resemble the best team of the past three years.
ELITE ADVANCED STATISTICS
The 2012 Cup champion Los Angeles Kings had the second-best Corsi Close in the NHL. They wouldn’t have been such an underdog as an eighth seed that year had we known as much about analytics then. The 2013 Hawks? Second in Corsi Close behind L.A. The 2014 champion Kings? First in Corsi Close. That’s second, second and first in puck possession among the past three Cup winners. This season’s top possession team in 5-on-5 Corsi Close? Tampa Bay.
The Stralman signing suggested the Bolts brass was attuned to the advanced stats movement, though Yzerman doesn’t think it was that simple.
“We keep our own advanced stats, if you want to call them that,” he said. “And to really be honest with you, we’re at a stage where we’re trying to take all that information and figure out if it means anything, what’s important and what’s not. It’s relatively new to the game, and basically our coach has a philosophy that we’d rather have the puck in our possession than the other team, which goes without saying.”
What makes Tampa especially scary: it leads the NHL in shooting percentage, too. Generating the most shot attempts and scoring on the highest percentage of them? That makes the Bolts lucky and good.
Tampa’s netminders had a lot to do with their demise in last year’s playoffs. Neither will have anything to do with the NHL post-season this year. Anders Lindback, now a Buffalo Sabre, and Kristers Gudlevskis, now the starter for AHL Syracuse, went 0-4 with a 3.91 goals-against average and .884 save percentage.
This year? Bishop enters the post-season healthy and will start, as Yzerman confirmed. And if Bishop gets hurt, which he is unfortunately known to do, the best goaltending prospect in the game backs him up. Vasilevskiy is the Eastern Conference’s answer to John Gibson. Yzerman drafted Vasilevskiy, 20, 19th overall in 2012, and the Russian has steadily ascended, dominating the KHL before a silky transition from the AHL to the NHL this season. He and Bishop have no post-season experience at the highest level, but both have been outstanding in the regular season and offer no tangible reasons to expect failure.
Last season we picked the St. Louis Blues to win it all. They flopped in the first round, and the one statistic that haunted us in hindsight was the roster’s zero Cup rings. The Bolts have just one among them. It belongs to Filppula, who earned it with Detroit in 2008. So Tampa’s lack of championship experience is an obvious knock.
“There’s nothing we can do about the fact we only have one player that’s won the Stanley Cup,” Yzerman said.
Every team has to start somewhere, however. The 2010 Blackhawks had one Cup champ on their roster: a 36-year-old John Madden who averaged 11 minutes per game. The inexperienced squad featuring Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook won the championship anyway. Antti Niemi had zero playoff experience entering 2010 and backstopped Chicago all the way.
So maybe experience is overrated. And the Lightning have their own version of big-game mileage. Coach Jon Cooper guided Tampa’s unstoppable AHL affiliate, then the Norfolk Admirals, to a Calder Cup in 2012. They won 28 straight games that year. Current Bolts from that team: Johnson, Palat, Mark Barberio and Alexander Killorn. None was a can’t-miss prospect at the time, so each competed in what could’ve been the biggest games he’d ever play. They all delivered.
Spread out all the evidence and verdict points to Tampa Bay. The supreme depth says so. The obvious roster improvements say so. And this team equally satisfies the stat geeks who favor possession and the dinosaurs who just care about goals. The Bolts have the NHL right where they want it, even if Stevie Y doesn’t want anyone to know that.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin
This is an updated, extended version of a feature that appears in THN’s Playoff Preview edition, which includes breakdowns and power rankings for all 30 teams, a Carey Price profile and much more. Watch for it on newsstands this week!