Steve Yzerman's goal with the Tampa Bay Lightning hasn't changed in the five years on the job.
Win now. Win tomorrow. Win a year from now. Five years from now.
Creating a team that can win today -- but without leveraging away the future. Create a system that cycles in young, home-grown talent to replace players that outgrow the team's salary structure. That's the plan -- turn the Tampa Bay Lightning into contenders today, but also into contenders tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, too.
From 2010, when he was hired:
"This is a long-term project for me. I believe building a Stanley Cup caliber team takes time and there will be many decisions, some lengthy, that will be made over the course of time," Yzerman said.
"There is no easy fix. I don't sit up here with the notion that there is a magic wand I can wave and make changes and we're a Stanley Cup contender. I plan on making the Lightning better for the upcoming season, but the long-term goal is to make this team a perennial contender."
It's been five years since he said that, and the path he's set the Lightning on has led to the top of standings, to the playoffs with a team full of rookies a season ago, and to a point where the Lightning look poised to make serious noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs this spring.
Until now, most moves made have fallen under the "perennial contender" category; under Yzerman, the team favors long, slow development in junior leagues in the NHL. They've amassed picks in most of the drafts and drafted well. They've scouted and signed undrafted free agents, and spent money on scouting and development and analytics. They've invested in facility upgrades for their AHL affiliate and in a new goaltending and video coach. Most free agents signed in the summers have been stopgap veterans to fill spots while the youth marinates.
We're reaching a point, however, where Yzerman is in a position to push some chips in.
Maybe not all of them -- but the team can contend now, and the point of 'winning in the future' is that, eventually, it will be the future. And it will be time to win.
Evgeni Nabokov was one of those stopgap veterans, signed in the summer of 2014 to a 1-year deal to provide veteran stability behind entrenched starter (and Vezina finalist) Ben Bishop as the Lightning looked to build off their first round sweep from a season ago:
How do you keep the two developing goalies playing in the near term without blocking their access to the NHL in the future?
Well, you do that by signing Evgeni Nabokov, apparently.
Of course, Steve Yzerman later made it known that Nabokov was only here until Andrei Vasilevskiy or Kristers Gudlevskis were ready for NHL duty. Nabokov knew it when he signed, and it answers the question of "Why Nabby, and not Thomas Greiss or Justin Peters or Al Montoya?":
The thing is, Nabokov's one-year, $1.65 million contract came with the understanding that he could find himself to be 3rd string by the winter of 2014/15. General manager Steve Yzerman shared that news (along with other information in the wake of the NHL draft and roster moves preceding and during free-agency) among staff at the Tampa Bay Times Forum ion July 2nd as well as on the radio in an interview on July 3rd.
Nabokov is currently still considering his assignment to the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL, but most expect him to retire rather than continue his career in the minors.
The real implications of this move for the organization are short-term in nature -- Vasilevskiy has been called up because the team believes he is ready to play in the NHL -- which is not a development league (ask Brett Connolly). He's not just there to spell Bishop. Long touted as the best goaltending prospect in the world and loved by the Lightning since he was selected 19th overall in 2012, Vasilevskiy is very much the projected "goaltender of the future", which means the Lightning have a vested interest in making sure he succeeds. Bishop's two year extension keeps him around through 2017 -- the same year Vasilevskiy's entry-level deal expires. This is likely not a coincidence.
Vasilevskiy has impressed in 24 games with the Syracuse Crunch (.919 SV% on ~700 shots faced) and, in a tiny NHL sample, played outstanding (.937 on ~100 shots faced). He's only 20 years old, so a rotation with Bishop and Gudlevskis for the two starting gigs is a likely scenario. Consider this: as of February 4, the Lightning have 30 games left and four back-to-backs. The Crunch have 32 games left, with 6 back-to-backs and 4 three-in-threes. That means 62 games to split up between Ben Bishop, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Kristers Gudlevskis, and Allen York.
If the goal is to rest Bishop and work Vasilevskiy in, expect something like a 2:1 split; 20 games for Bishop, 10 for Vasilevskiy. Gudlevskis will be expected to carry the load in Syracuse, so give him 20 games too; that leaves 12 more in the AHL to split between Vasilevskiy, who can be swapped with Gudlevskis at will to sit on a night where Gudlevskis is expected to rest anyways, and York. It's up to Yzerman and AGM Julien BriseBois to figure out the logistics of making this type of rotation work. It's unconventional, but not impossible.
Further down the line, the spot opened in the depth chart by Nabokov's absence can be used as a bargaining chip with still-unsigned NCAA goaltender Adam Wilcox from the University of Minnesota. The organization can now promise him at the very least a chance to compete with Gudlevskis for the starting gig in Syracuse in the fall; while other teams could theoretically offer him playing time in the NHL in order to lure him away, Tampa's recent history with goaltenders and the AHL playing time could be enough to get the Lightning prospect under contract and into the system proper.
In any event, the point is a veteran who was failing to give the current team a chance to win is gone, replaced with home-grown talent ready to be worked into the regular NHL lineup. With a handful of quality top-4 defensemen o n the market, expect Yzerman to also be active on the trade market looking to replace injured rearguards Matt Carle and Radko Gudas. This is Yzerman's plan, actualized, and shiftly ever so-subtly towards winning right now with a team that can legitimately go all the way.