Detroit GM Ken Holland and Steve Yzerman worked together in Detroit's front office for four years. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
Not that Steve Yzerman is a shoo-in to be the 2011 recipient of the newly created GM of the Year Award, but Tampa Bay Lightning fans can take great comfort in the fact the man most in demand to become a new GM this summer decided to ‘Go Gulfing.’
When rumors started up that Yzerman was a target of Tampa’s, I and many others blew it off as wishful thinking. Sure, the Lightning can shoot for the clouds, but why on Earth would a respected figure such as Yzerman want to go to one of the most tenuous operations in the NHL?
Clearly new Bolts owner Jeff Vinik has given Yzerman the keys to the franchise and, unlike previous owners Len Barrie and Oren Koules, will be hands-off. That’s the only way Yzerman would have taken this job: If No. 19 had any inkling the Lightning operation would carry on as it has been for two years, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t wait for another, more stable opportunity.
But Yzerman himself still has a lot to prove.
Sure, he was the executive director of a gold medal-winning Canadian Olympic entry, but that’s a whole other bag of apples. Anyone with a brain can piece together a competitive Canadian team, but it takes a whole different mentality and understanding to construct a competitive team year after year in a salary-capped league.
Where Yzerman starts with a leg up, though, is that he spent the past four years with the gem of the NHL, the Detroit Red Wings. Learning the management craft from gurus such as Ken Holland, Jim Nill, Jimmy Devellano, etc., Yzerman saw first-hand how a successful franchise is run and will undoubtedly take that with him to Tampa Bay.
Instead of jumping right in and taking a GM post he could have landed with his name alone, Yzerman took the time to learn the ropes and best set himself up for a career in the field. And for this, Yzerman deserves a lot of credit; you don’t have to look far to find successful GMs who benefited from a prolonged apprenticeship.
St. Louis’ Larry Pleau, a top American player in the ‘60s and ‘70s and a 1968 Olympian, stepped behind the Hartford Whalers bench almost immediately after retiring in 1979 and also served as GM of the squad for two seasons. But after both campaigns ended with Hartford out of the playoffs, Pleau was also out of the GM’s chair.
After another stint as Whalers bench boss in the late ’80s, Pleau worked as the assistant GM of player development for the New York Rangers from 1989-97. The team improved in each of the first three years he was there and climbed to the peak as Cup champions in 1994. Pleau learned the ways of a powerful team on the rise that suddenly went on a seven-season playoff power outage when he left for St. Louis, this time taking over the GM role as an older, wiser hockey exec.
Pleau’s Blues won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2000 and, after a tumultuous few years, are back on the right track and building towards something special.
Doug Wilson, the current San Jose GM and Chicago’s first pick (sixth overall) in 1977, played 16 seasons in the NHL as an offensive defenseman and won the Norris Trophy in 1982. He was hired by the Sharks in 1997 as director of pro development, which involved evaluating talent and constantly assessing the Sharks roster and reserve list.
Like Pleau, Wilson learned the ropes by being around a team that was growing into something. The Sharks went from a non-playoff team to first-time division champions in 2002, before missing the playoffs in a disastrous 2003 that ultimately led to an opening for Wilson to become GM. Since then, he has navigated the Sharks through their most successful years, winning four more division titles and a Presidents’ Trophy in 2009.
Is Yzerman risking his reputation by taking on this role? As a manager yes; as a player, heck no. But has there ever been a GM in professional sports history that wasn’t risking their managerial reputation by taking a job? One whiff on a high draft pick or one miscalculation on a player’s potential in a trade and a promising situation can turn into a precarious one in a snap.
That’s where the experience of working in a winning environment pays off. You get to learn about taking these risks and garner a feel for asset and organization management. Take a look at former Tampa GM Brian Lawton – who never worked in an NHL front office before coming to Tampa Bay – or former Atlanta GM Don Waddell – who spent only two years in Detroit’s front office before taking the reins of an expansion team in Atlanta – and tell me they couldn’t have used a little seasoning before taking on the top job.
There is no guarantee Yzerman will be a success, but he wasn’t just handed the opportunity and instead has taken all the steps necessary to make sure he is prepared.
With a good base of young talent and veteran producers, Yzerman has something with which to work in Tampa and, given his resume, Lightning fans can rest well knowing their franchise is finally in capable – and prepared – hands.
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