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Grading Steve Yzerman

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Enough time has passed and enough moves have been made to grade the first few years of Yzerman’s tenure.

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Since Steve Yzerman took over as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning in May 2010, there have been many moves and transactions. A lot of these moves were good, some were ok, and few were bad. He’s set up the Tampa Bay Lightning to be a dynasty franchise for years to come, even if there are some tough decisions ahead that are forced upon Yzerman by the nature of the salary cap.

With success usually comes salary cap trouble. For example, the Chicago Blackhawks are now being hamstrung by their contracts for Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, and Corey Crawford. They’re still a good team, but they could be an even better team if those contracts were a little more manageable.

After reading this article by Matt Larkin about Yzerman’s rise from elite player to elite General Manager, one comment struck me. Larkin said “He’s built a track record of someone who rarely makes a bad decision – whether at the draft podium, on a trade or at the negotiating table.”

Larkin goes on to list just a few of the good and the bad decisions, but it got me thinking about some of the other decisions that were not mentioned and how they worked out, or didn’t work out, for the organization. I thought I’d take a look at some of these decisions and grade them. While there are too many small, inconsequential transactions to cover, I’ll be going through as many as I reasonably can.

Hiring Head Coach Guy Boucher
Grade: C+

What happened: Needing a new coach, Steve Yzerman hired rookie head coach Guy Boucher on June 10th, 2010. Boucher was a hot commodity and much sought after, but ultimately Yzerman landed him. Boucher’s 1-3-1 neutral zone strategy was a success in his first season, and the Lightning made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010-11. The downfall of Boucher is that he was inflexible in his approach. While the talent level on the team suffered after the 2010-11 season, he was unable to keep the momentum going and was released during the 2012-13 season.

The 2010 Draft
Grade: Pass

What Happened: With no time to get his own scouting staff into place, Yzerman was left with the previous regime’s scouting staff. It’s up for debate how much impact Yzerman had in the draft selections. Brett Connolly was a miss in the first round at 6th overall. Radko Gudas has turned into a NHL defenseman, though recently he leaves something to be desired with his dirty plays. Outside of those two players, no player from that draft remains in the Lightning system, though Brendan O’Donnell did sign a contract with the Lightning’s ECHL affiliate, the Kalamazoo Wings.

Traded Andrej Meszaros to Philadelphia for a 2012 2nd Round Pick
Grade: B+

What Happened: Meszaros signed a six-year deal with the Lightning with an annual average value of $4 million. It was a back-loaded contract with the Lightning paying $2.5 and $3.25 million in the first two years. The contract then went to $4 million in years 3 and 4, and $4.75 and $5.5 million in the last two years. Yzerman was able to move the majority of the money owed and still got a 2nd round pick. Meszaros only contributed 34 points over the first two seasons, after averaging 36 points in the previous three seasons with the Ottawa Senators. Meszaros did bounce back with Philadelphia, but Yzerman got out of a bad contract by the previous regime and got a good draft pick in return.

Re-Signed Martin St. Louis to a 4 year contract
Grade: A

What Happened: While Martin St. Louis’ time in Tampa didn’t end all that well, Yzerman did sign him to a very reasonable deal averaging $5.625 million per year for four years. He signed him while St. Louis still had a year left on his previous contract, well before he could become an unrestricted free agent. Over the first three years of that contract, St. Louis put up seasons of 74, 60, and 61 points before being traded to the New York Rangers.

Signed Pavel Kubina to a 2 year contract
Grade: B

What Happened: Needing a solid defenseman that could mentor Victor Hedman and a replacement for Andrej Meszaros, Yzerman brought Pavel Kubina back to Tampa. Kubina had left the Lightning prior to the 2005-06 season as a free agent. He played with the Toronto Maple Leafs for three seasons and the Atlanta Thrashers for one. The contract for Kubina was worth $3.85 million per year, and he put up 23 and 11 points before being traded to Philadelphia. Kubina already had his name on the Cup with the Lightning, and returning home, he provided a solid blue line presence and an example for Hedman.

Hired Julien BriseBois as Assistant GM
Grade: A+

What Happened: BriseBois came to the Lightning from the Montreal Canadiens organization where he had been involved in legal affairs and was the general manager of their AHL affiliate. He has that same responsibility and more with the Lightning. He is intimately involved in CBA issues, contract negotiations, and salary cap management. He is one of Yzerman’s right hand men and is an important part of his brain trust. His name has come up occasionally as a general manager candidate and it probably won’t be long before he gets his shot at running a franchise.

Traded Matt Walker and a 4th round pick for Simon Gagne
Grade: B+

What Happened: The Philadelphia Flyers were in a bit of a salary cap crunch and Yzerman saw a need for a scoring forward. Walker had played 66 games for the Lightning in 2009-10 with 5 points. He only played in 8 more NHL games over the next three seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers before retiring. Simon Gagne had 40 points in 63 games plus another 12 points in 15 playoff games. He provided a solid offensive boost for the Lightning for a year before moving on to the Los Angeles Kings. Yzerman didn’t give up much of value other than the salary paid to Gagne and got a pretty good performance out of him.

Hired Jon Cooper as AHL Coach
Grade: A+++

What Happened: Jon Cooper moved up through the ranks of junior hockey, and Yzerman gave him his first shot as a professional coach. Cooper took over the Norfolk Admirals and led them to the Calder Cup as AHL champions. His apprenticeship there would eventually lead to his hiring as the Lightning’s head coach in 2012-13.

Traded Ty Wishart for Dwayne Roloson
Grade: A+

What Happened: Ty Wishart was acquired as a part of the Dan Boyle trade in 2008. He only played 5 games in the NHL with the Lightning and mostly served as an AHL depth player. Dwayne Roloson solidified the Lightning’s goaltender situation in January of the 2010-11 season. Despite his age, Roloson was spectacular, and led the Lightning to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Roloson finally started going over the cliff of old age and retired after the 2011-12 season. Wishart only played in 21 more games in the NHL before leaving for Europe. Yzerman traded a nothing asset for a goaltender that led the Lightning into the playoffs.

Traded Brock Beukeboom and a 2011 third round pick for Eric Brewer
Grade: B

What Happened: Beukeboom was one of the picks from the 2010 draft and didn’t even last a year in the organization. Eric Brewer was the Captain of the St. Louis Blues, but Yzerman picked him up to add to the blueline depth for the stretch run. While Brewer faded pretty hard in his last year with the Lightning, he provided a solid top four presence for three and a half seasons for the Lightning. Beukeboom failed to develop and has never signed a professional contract. He is currently playing for a Canadian college program after finishing his OHL career.

Signed junior free agent Tyler Johnson
Grade: A+++

What Happened: Tyler Johnson’s story is well known by now. A small center with skill and hockey IQ, Yzerman convinced Johnson to join the Lightning despite being courted by a number of NHL franchises. He became a two-way force in the AHL and has turned into one of the better centermen in the NHL. Signing Johnson was quite a coup and Yzerman has reaped the rewards.

2011 Draft
Grade: A+++

What Happened: After having used up the third and fourth round picks in trades for Eric Brewer and Simon Gagne, Yzerman only had a 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th, and two 7th round picks to work with. With the farm being bare of talent, Yzerman focused on skill players. He selected current NHLers Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov, Nikita Nesterov, and Ondrej Palat. The other two selections look like future NHLers and are currently playing for the Syracuse Crunch; Adam Wilcox and Matthew Peca. This may go down as his best draft ever.

Invited free agents Cory Conacher and Pierre-Cedric Labrie to camp
Grade: B+

What Happened: Cory Conacher and Pierre-Cedric Labrie both impressed enough to get AHL deals with the Lightning. Both would eventually sign NHL contracts with the Lightning. While Labrie fizzled, he did provide some decent fourth line play and good AHL play for the Lightning. Conacher had a sizzling breakout after the 2012-13 lockout and ended up in a trade that now makes Yzerman look like a genius.

Acquired Kyle Quincey from Colorado for Steve Downie and acquired a 2012 first round pick from Detroit for Kyle Quincey

Grade: A+

What Happened: Steven Downie was not a fit for the style that Steve Yzerman wanted his forwards to play. While he had been a nice complement to Steven Stamkos, his defense wasn’t all it could be. Yzerman traded Downie for Quincey and then immediately flipped Quincey to Detroit for a 1st round pick. The biggest reason this gets an A+ grade is what Yzerman did with the 1st round pick: Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Signed NCAA Free Agent J.T. Brown to an ELC
Grade: B

What Happened: Whenever you can acquire an NHL calibre talent for free, it’s a success. And that’s what J.T. Brown has turned into. Yzerman burned the first year of his entry level contract as part of the agreement to get Brown, an NCAA free agent, to sign with the Lightning by playing him in five games. He spent the 2012-13 season with the Syracuse Crunch before breaking into the NHL full time during the 2013-14 season. He has developed into a solid bottom six forward for the Lightning.

Traded Sebastien Caron, two 2012 second round picks, and a 2013 third round pick for Anders Lindback, Kyle Wilson, and a 2012 seventh round pick.
Grade: F

What Happened: While in theory this looked like a great trade, it didn’t turn out so well. Anders Lindback was a career back-up that had spent very minimal time in the AHL while backing up Pekka Rinne in the NHL. In limited showings, he played well with the Nashville Predators. However, their system was very structured, and that helped protect Lindback. Lindback only played 47 games for the Lightning before the Lightning allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent. Kyle Wilson only played in the AHL for the Lightning. The only thing keeping this from being a F- is that the 7th round pick was used on Nikita Gusev. This is one of the few moves Yzerman has made that fell completely flat.

2012 Draft
Grade: A

What Happened: With two first round selections, Yzerman took a gamble on Slater Koekkoek at 10th overall. Koekkoek had dealt with a shoulder injury and would suffer two more shoulder injuries before turning pro. He’s on the verge of making it into the NHL full time and has a lot of upside. The other first round selection was used on Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy has the skill to be an elite goaltender in the NHL and is the starter in waiting for the Lightning once Ben Bishop moves on. The only other current NHLer from the draft for the Lightning is Cedric Paquette, a fourth round pick. However, Tanner Richard has a good shot at becoming a fourth line center for the Lightning. The other picks from the draft include current minor leaguers Dylan Blujus, Jake Dotchin, and Brian Hart. The lone player not in the organization is Nikita Gusev. He is playing in the KHL, but has a chance to come to the NHL in a couple seasons. The Lightning hold his rights until he turns 27.

Signed Sami Salo to two year contract
Grade: C

What Happened: An older defenseman, Sami Salo became Victor Hedman’s regular partner as well as contributing some on the power play. At the tail end of his career, he was slowing down, but still contributed 34 points over two seasons. Injuries ended his career and he did not play professionally again after finishing his contract with the Lightning.

Signed Matt Carle to six year contract
Grade: D

What Happened: Ok, ok. Stop screaming. I know a lot of people will insist that this grade should be an F. But follow me for just a minute. Carle was one of the only top four defensemen available in the market and the Lightning needed someone to slot behind Victor Hedman with Eric Brewer slowing down. He had good offense in his game with Philadelphia and he provided a solid power play presence for the Lightning at the beginning of the contract. He had 22 points in 48 games his first year and 31 points in 82 games his second year. Those point totals were first and second for the Lightning’s defensemen in those two seasons. 2014-15 is when Carle’s game started to go downhill and got even worse in 2015-16. Yzerman ultimately was forced to buy out the last two seasons of Carle’s contract.

Signed Teddy Purcell to a three year extension
Grade: C

What Happened: A year from free agency, Yzerman signed Teddy Purcell to a three year contract extension after seasons of 51 and 65 points including a 24 goal performance in 2011-12 prior to signing the contract. The contract was for $4.5 million per year. In 2012-13, he continued to produce with 36 points in 48 games, and turned into a good top six forward. Unfortunately, he had a shoulder injury that he played through, and it seemed like he forgot how to shoot the puck. Despite putting up 42 points in 81 games in 2013-14, he was pushed down the line up. After that 24 goal season, he hasn’t exceeded 14 goals in a season since.

Signed NCAA free agent Andrej Sustr
Grade: B+

What Happened: Much like J.T. Brown, whenever you can get an NHL calibre talent without giving up any assets or using a pick, it’s a win. While he’s had his shaky moments, Sustr is finally turning into a solid top four defenseman. Like Brown, Yzerman burned the first year of Sustr’s ELC by playing him in two NHL games. Unlike Brown, Yzerman sent him to Syracuse after his NHL stint where he contributed to the Crunch’s stretch run and playoff run to the Calder Cup finals. Most of Sustr’s development has happened at the NHL level and Yzerman has gotten his money’s worth out of Sustr as he approaches 200 NHL games.

Promoted Jon Cooper to head coach of the Lightning
Grade: A+++

What Happened: After his first season in the NHL, Guy Boucher floundered. His inability to adjust to the league swift learning curve was his ultimate downfall. There were also reports that he was too lenient on players. Jon Cooper was brought in and he quickly got to work turning the Lightning into a playoff team in his first year in the NHL. Since then, he has taken the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Finals and the Eastern Conference Finals. He was a Jack Adams finalist for Coach of the Year in 2014-15 (frankly I think he was robbed by Patrick Roy winning the award).

Traded Cory Conacher and a 2013 fourth round pick for Ben Bishop
Grade: A+

What Happened: After getting Cory Conacher on an AHL deal and then an NHL deal, Conacher broke out with the Lightning after the 2012-13 lockout. Perhaps realizing that he had a lot of forward talent in the pipeline, Yzerman sold high on Conacher’s 24 point in 35 games performance. In turn, he acquired unproven Ben Bishop, who has since turned into a top 10 goaltender in the NHL. The trade was a coup for Yzerman and almost seemed prophetic, as Conacher floundered in the NHL following the trade.

Bought out Vincent Lecavalier
Grade: A+

What Happened: On one hand, this had to be one of the hardest decisions Steve Yzerman had to make, but on the other hand, it was a very easy decision to make. The then-face of the franchise, Lecavalier had signed a massive 11 year, $85 million contract with the Lightning starting with the 2009-10 season. With a cap hit of $7.72 million, and $45 million dollars remaining on the contract, Steve Yzerman made the hard decision to use a compliance buyout on Lecavalier. The compliance buyout allowed Yzerman to buy out Lecavalier’s contract without any salary cap ramifications. Teams were allowed two such buyouts after the new CBA was signed in 2012-13 due to changes in the calculation of the salary cap hit of contracts. Back diving deals had previously been beneficial to teams, but with the changes they often became a handicap. On top of that, injuries had slowed Lecavalier down and he was not producing at a level nearly high enough to justify his cap hit. It was hard to let go of such an important player in franchise history, but for the future of the team, it was the right decision to make.

2013 Draft
Grade: A

What Happened: After a bad 2012-13 season, the Lightning were selecting 3rd overall. While there was plenty of speculation about who the Lightning would take with Jonathan Drouin and Seth Jones available, Yzerman ultimately took Drouin. While the road has been bumpy with Drouin, he seems to finally be turning into the player that he was expected to become. Second round pick Adam Erne has struggled with injuries, but has the potential to be a future middle six power forward scorer for the Lightning. Yzerman also selected likely future Lightning back-up goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis. Henri Ikonen has been a bust, but did earn a contract. Joel Vermin is on the verge of making the NHL as a bottom six pest with good two-way skill. Saku Salminen remains in Europe and is the only unsigned pick from the draft and is unlikely to earn a contract.

Signed Valtteri Filppula to five year contract
Grade: B-

What Happened: After parting ways with Vincent Lecavalier, there was a need for a second line center. Filppula was a free agent from the Detroit Red Wings and Yzerman was familiar with him from his time in Detroit. While his play has diminished in the latter part of the contract, he has provided good value. At this point he is overpaid, but in his first two seasons with the Lightning, he provided 58 points and 48 points. In his third season, he had only 31 points in 76 games. This season, he’s playing on the third line and still provides the team with a playmaker in the bottom part of the lineup, as well as being good on faceoffs and the penalty kill. His points are unlikely to rebound much this season since he isn’t being utilized on the power play.

Traded Martin St. Louis and a 2nd round pick for Ryan Callahan, two first round picks, and Daniel Walcott
Signed Ryan Callahan to six year extension
Grade: A+

What Happened: I’m lumping both of these decisions and another transaction together for simplicity. The 2nd round pick and 7th round pick swap were made when Ryan Callahan’s extension was signed. The 7th round pick was traded back to the Rangers for Daniel Walcott. There are a lot of arguments about whether Callahan is worth his contract or not, but I believe that at this point the signing was not a mistake for several reasons.

Yzerman made the best of a bad situation with Martin St. Louis in acquiring Callahan and what ultimately became two first-round picks. Both first-round picks were turned into three second-round picks and a third-round pick. Those trades will be covered later.

As far as Callahan’s contract, he provided 24 goals and 54 points in his first full season with the Lightning. A reduced role and injuries limited him to 28 points in 73 games in the second year. I’m not ready to fully judge this contract until we see how he bounces back this season and next. He provides leadership in the locker room, energy on the ice, and solid penalty kill play. He also is cited as a big reason for Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle signing with the Lightning.

Signed Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat to 3 year, $10 million contracts
Grade: A+

What Happened: After breaking into the NHL together, Johnson and Palat had earned their way into the top six for the Lightning and these bridge deals for them turned out to be good investments for Steve Yzerman. The following year, they turned into a dynamic trio with Nikita Kucherov and still form a vital part of the core of the Lightning.

Traded a 2014 2nd round pick for Jason Garrison, Jeff Costello, and a 2014 7th round pick
Grade: B-

What Happened: When Jason Garrison was a free agent after the 2011-12 season, the Lightning were interested in signing him. Ultimately, he chose the Vancouver Canucks. Two years later though, the Canucks were looking to move him and Yzerman was looking for a defenseman. The teams came together in a trade. While the 2nd round pick they gave up looks to be a future NHLer in Roland McKeown, the Lightning have gotten a solid top 4 defenseman in Garrison at a reasonable $4.6 million cap hit. Injuries slowed Garrison down last season and he’ll be looking to bounce back this season.

Traded a 2014 1st round pick for two 2014 second round picks
Grade: B

What Happened: Having already selected Anthony DeAngelo with the 19th overall pick, Steve Yzerman turned his extra 1st round pick from the Callahan trade into two second round picks. The Islanders selected Joshua Ho-Sang, and allowed Yzerman to select defensemen Dominik Masin and Jonathan MacLeod. Masin looks like a borderline Top 4 defenseman in the next few years. MacLeod is a project playing in NCAA and still a long way off from the NHL.

Traded a 2014 third round pick and 2015 seventh round pick for 2014 third round pick
Grade: A+

What Happened: Steve Yzerman had his eye on Brayden Point and chose to give up a seventh round pick to move up one spot to select him. At the time, it looked like a fine move given the value of a seventh round pick. Today it looks like an incredible move because of how Brayden Point developed. He’s already made the NHL and looks like he has a bright future with Tampa Bay.

2014 Draft
Grade: B

What Happened: This may be one of the weaker draft classes that Yzerman has had. There were a total of four trades involving just draft picks during this draft including the previous two trades I just covered. The other were fairly inconsequential. Yzerman picked Anthony DeAngelo at the top of the draft, but has since moved on from him. Brayden Point looks to be a future star. Dominik Masin has a lot of promise. Beyond that, MacLeod has not come along very quickly. Ben Thomas and Cameron Darcy are in the minors, but neither is a serious NHL prospect. Cristiano DiGiacinto, a sixth round pick, did not earn a contract with the team.

Traded Teddy Purcell for Sam Gagner
Traded Sam Gagner and B.J. Crombeen for 2015 sixth round pick
Grade: B-

What Happened: This was a salary dump to move on from Teddy Purcell. Yzerman retained some of Gagner’s salary as he was shipped off to Arizona, but that was offset by moving Crombeen as well. The sixth round pick was used for Kristian Oldham, an NCAA goaltender. In the end, there was basically no return except clearing cap space. So while not ideal, call it a win for Yzerman.

Signed Anton Stralman to five year contract
Grade: A

What Happened: The New York Rangers had to make a choice between retaining Dan Girardi or Anton Stralman. The Rangers chose poorly. But their loss was the Lightning’s gain as Yzerman was able to sign Stralman for $4.5 million a year over five years. Stralman has been an advanced stats darling for his possession statistics, and this continued with the Lightning where he has been the perfect partner for fellow Swede Victor Hedman.

Signed Brian Boyle to three year contract
Grade: B+

What Happened: Another victim of the New York Rangers’ cap crunch, Brian Boyle also joined the Lightning for $2 million a year. While often billed as a fourth liner, Boyle has underrated offensive skills. He has been well worth the contract and was a smart signing by Yzerman.

Conclusion

It’s often hard to evaluate moves until years after they’ve happened. Sometimes deals work out better than expected when it was made and sometimes they work out worse. As a prime example, many people thought the Conacher/Bishop trade was awful at the time and it’s turned out to be one of Yzerman’s best trade. A lot of people thought the Lindback trade was a great trade at the time and it’s been one of Yzerman’s worst.

Suffice to say, Yzerman has rarely made a mistake during his tenure as the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. And that consistency has put the Lightning in a position to succeed for years to come.