Oh, to be Steve Yzerman.
NHL Hall of Famer, three-time Stanley Cup champ, multi-gold medalist, jersey in the Joe Louis Arena rafters, sharp dresser… you get the picture.
He’s also general manager of the Lightning, a team that currently resembles a snowbird in the far left lane of the Howard Johnson in rush hour trying to figure out this “GPX-Box” their grandson gave them. They have no idea what direction they’re going and can’t get out of their own way. And it’s annoying you, big time.
Oh, to be Steve Yzerman.
In a season not sabotaged by Gary Bettman, the Lightning would be going through an understandable December roller coaster with months of recovery time in front of them. It happens to every team in every season, but this 48-game season is obviously different.
Tampa Bay, like everyone else, began the year in the thick of a playoff race.
With the Lightning still trending down, if this was Toronto or Manhattan, perhaps firing the coach to right the ship would be the most logical choice to satisfy the masses holding pitchforks and torches.
But Yzerman is and has always been a big picture guy. And his situation is multi-layered in its complication.
Go for it?
It’s easy to throw out “fire the coach,” and in some cases it’s warranted. This is not one of them, and the reasoning is simple and may be hard to hear: The Lightning are not Cup contenders.
Firing the coach is a last resort kind of move, one you make when you are sure you have a contending roster already on the ice that just needs an extra push.
Contenders have solidified goaltending and are strong from the net out and down the middle. As my Bolt Prospects co-founder Pete Choquette said after the Lightning’s loss on Monday, the Lightning are the opposite and are now reminiscent of the defense-less, character-starved, Kovalchuking Atlanta Thrashers of yesteryear.
We’ve already seen Boucher take a good Lightning team to the Eastern Conference Finals. Or was it Dwayne Roloson who took the Lightning there? There’s no doubting how big goaltending was for Tampa Bay that year. Very few teams can make long playoff runs without great goaltending, that’s common hockey sense.
Does anyone think the Lightning have the goaltender to lead them to the conference finals?
They could, but we still don’t know. Garon is gimpy. Lindback is finding his feet in the NHL. Desjardins is a huge unknown at the NHL level. And if Yzerman thinks he has that goaltender on the roster, he certainly isn’t sure enough about it to fire the coach and put the team on that goaltender’s back.
On defense, the Bolts have a decent roster, but outside of Victor Hedman it lacks a difference-maker. And for as good as Hedman is, to paraphrase Kansas Basketball Head Coach Bill Self (on Tyshawn Taylor): “He makes plays you can't coach and makes plays that look like he's never been coached – just in a span of seconds."
Hedman’s 22 so that will happen, but he still has the most value of anyone on the roster outside of that Stamkos fellow.
The makings are there for a good defense, but they’re not gelling with each other and they’re not gelling with the forwards in a cohesive five-man unit – especially in the defensive third. Coverage is abysmal and goalies aren’t consistently bailing them out.
In my opinion, the defense needs two things:
1. Energy beyond Hedman
Fortunately for Yzerman, he has this piece, but he’s sitting on a bus in Syracuse watching his beard grow. Radko Gudas would provide instant, contagious energy on the third pair, and he’s a righty shot. But Yzerman would have to move Marc-Andre Bergeron or Brendan Mikkelson to get him up, and Brian Lee would have to move to defenseman No. 7. All doable.
2. A right-handed power play specialist who can play in the top-4
Sami Salo was a fine signing by the Lightning. Ideally he’s more of a 4/5 at his age, but he’s not the disher that the Lightning ideally need for the point in their power play diamond. That player has to be a righty shot to eliminate the extra half-second pivot it would take for a lefty to feed Stamkos in his office. Brian Lee can’t do it and it’s really not Gudas’ strong point either. Against the Penguins, Martin St. Louis was at the point, but he’s a lefty, who automatically and easily telegraphs any pass to his left. Plus, he’s a forward and is more effective to the goalie’s left down low.
If Yzerman was “going for it,” a high-priced, pending unrestricted free agent like Dan Boyle would be at the top of his wish list – and this is assuming Yzerman has already worked out the defensemen numbers game. The price would be a first or second round pick, plus a prospect like Ondrej Palat or Brett Connolly (and side dishes thrown in either way).
But he can’t do this, despite the bevy of forwards in the system. He doesn’t have the goalie to take him deep in the playoffs, and getting deep in the playoffs would be the only achievement worth justifying the price paid for Boyle.
If Yzerman is thinking immediate and long term – which he should and is – then maybe you look at acquiring someone like Ryan Ellis from Nashville in exchange for a high-end forward prospect. The Predlies are always looking for scoring and a swap of highly regarded prospects might be the answer. Ellis’ lack of experience would hurt the Lightning this year, though. Remember, it takes a defenseman 300 games to mature.
If it wasn’t for the numbers problem (which Yzerman purposefully and understandably created because of defensive injuries last year), perhaps he spends a mid/late pick or moderate prospect for Jason Demers of San Jose, a righty who has some upside, but would be more of a flier instead of an “answer.” You get what you pay for.
If it’s a goalie he’s looking for, does he trade for Luongo? Again, no, because Yzerman doesn’t have the proven, cohesive defensive group to protect Luongo in the playoffs (not to mention Luongo has a playoff history that many will be quick to point out).
So, if there are gaping chasms on the roster in the blue ice and on the blue line, then you can’t fire the coach and expect everything to be fixed.
You just happen to have a coach like Jon Cooper waiting in the wings.
Cooper, last year’s Calder Cup-winning AHL Coach of the Year, has his Syracuse Crunch within a finger’s reach of the AHL’s best record, though the team has struggled with consistency since the lockout ended. He interviewed with the Washington Capitals last year and the Lightning will be hard pressed to keep him in the organization next year… unless he’s their head coach.
Cooper and Boucher are both intelligent coaches whose strength is communication. At Lightning camp in 2011, in reference to an enigmatic Richard Panik, Cooper told me he finds a way to reach each player as an individual and then helps develop them using adapted tactics. He obviously did that with Panik, who was an AHL All-Star this year and recently made his NHL debut.
Let it be known that the future of the Lightning is with its youth. Lecavalier and St. Louis aren’t going to be around much longer. Brewer and Salo are close to their final years. The future rests with Stamkos, Lindback, Hedman, Carle, Gudas, Barberio, Purcell, Conacher, Killorn, Panik, Palat, Brown, Connolly, Johnson, etc. Cooper knows most of these players and how to get the most out of them. He plays an entertaining system with high energy and accountability.
So, Mr. Yzerman, you have one main, big picture question to ask yourself: Boucher or Cooper?
Who does Yzerman want leading the Lightning through its calculated, Red Wings-like, system-feeding stretch run of automatic playoff births and deep Cup runs? Because that’s what Yzerman has been aiming for all this time, and it’s not too far away.
He thought he had that coach in Guy Boucher, who was a fine choice then and in all honesty, remains a fine choice now. But… is Cooper a better choice? It’s one or the other, because barring a miracle Cooper is gone after this year only to be seen again on opposing NHL benches.
With the present-day Lightning needing a jolt of energy – Cup contender or not, does Yzerman make that future-focused decision now or after the Calder Cup playoffs are over? Or has he already?
Oh, to be Steve Yzerman.