Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman is often lauded for creating a consistently competitive team, so much so that the system in Tampa is affectionately referred to as the "Yzerplan."
In six seasons, Yzerman has taken the Bolts to two Eastern Conference Finals and a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. He overhauled the roster so that only four players remain in the organization from the pre-Yzerman era (Alex Killorn drafted in 2007, Steven Stamkos and Luke Witkowski drafted in 2008, and Victor Hedman drafted in 2009).
This is Yzerman’s team, so how did he do it? This series attempts to answer that question.
The Bolts have faced a ton of injuries this year. Pair that with recent trades, and the Lightning are currently down by seven experienced NHL forwards (Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan, Tyler Johnson, Brian Boyle, Valtteri Filppula, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Cedric Paquette) as well as two-time Vezina Finalist goalie Ben Bishop. Yet somehow, even with a depleted roster, the team just won back-to-back games against two teams currently in playoff positions — the New York Rangers and the Ottawa Senators.
The type of organizational depth required to win despite missing so many players comes from years of drafting well.
When people talk about the Yzerplan, they often reference Yzerman’s impressive cap management or his savvy trades, but the Yzerplan is also built upon a solid foundation of drafting and development. One glance at the Lightning roster reveals that the team is loaded with high-caliber talent, but where did that talent come from? Who found the young players that are so crucial to the team’s success?
The man behind the drafting strategy in Tampa is Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray. When Yzerman was hired to be the Lightning’s General Manager in 2010, he recruited Murray away from his position as head scout for Hockey Canada, where he had won a pair of IIHF World Junior Championship gold medals (2008, 2009) and one IIHF World Under-18 Championship gold medal (2008).
Al Murray has been at the helm of Tampa’s amateur scouting department since the 2011 NHL Draft. 42 of the 46 players drafted by Murray are still with the organization (three were traded away and one went unsigned). If you include the three undrafted free agent signings, Murray has brought in a total of 49 players and the Bolts have kept 46 of them. That 94% retention rate speaks to the idea that Yzerman trusts Murray’s selections to develop into valuable players. That trust combined with patience has put the team in a position to succeed both now and well into the future.
Let’s take a look at what Murray has accomplished, year by year.
2011 Draft Picks
|1||27||Vladislav Namestnikov||C||190||32||43||75||NHL||Tampa Bay Lightning|
|2||58||Nikita Kucherov||RW||272||99||119||218||NHL||Tampa Bay Lightning|
|5||148||Nikita Nesterov||D||128||9||21||30||NHL||Montreal Canadiens|
|6||178||Adam Wilcox||G||AHL||Springfield Thunderbirds|
|7||201||Matthew Peca||C||10||1||1||2||AHL||Syracuse Crunch|
|7||208||Ondrej Palat||LW||293||71||130||201||NHL||Tampa Bay Lightning|
|N/A||N/A||Tyler Johnson||C||306||89||121||210||NHL||Tampa Bay Lightning|
Honestly, we can just stop right here. This is a near-perfect draft.
Murray’s work in 2011 laid the foundation for the infamous Triplets line of Ondrej Palat - Tyler Johnson - Nikita Kucherov that dominated the NHL in the 2014-2015 season, and continues to produce. Those three players, along with Vladislav Namestnikov, are consistently in the Bolts lineup. For most of the past three seasons, they have constituted 1⁄3 of the Lightning’s forward corps.
Matthew Peca could make the NHL roster next year, and Adam Wilcox will likely develop into at least a solid NHL back-up goalie.
This draft is exactly what you want — picking up first-round talent in the second round (Kucherov), late round steals (Palat), and some undrafted talent just for good measure (Johnson). Peca is doing well for a seventh-round pick, and Wilcox was involved in a trade that Yzerman used to strengthen the farm team. Every draft pick netted a valuable asset.
2012 Draft Picks
|1||10||Slater Koekkoek||D||41||0||5||5||AHL||Syracuse Crunch|
|1||19||Andrei Vasilevskiy||G||78||NHL||Tampa Bay Lightning|
|2||40||Dylan Blujus||D||AHL||Syracuse Crunch|
|2||53||Brian Hart||RW||ECHL||Kalamazoo Wings|
|3||71||Tanner Richard||C||3||0||0||0||AHL||Syracuse Crunch|
|4||101||Cedric Paquette||C||180||22||19||41||NHL||Tampa Bay Lightning|
|6||161||Jake Dotchin||D||21||0||5||5||NHL||Tampa Bay Lightning|
|7||202||Nikita Gusev||LW||KHL||SKA Saint Petersburg|
|N/A||N/A||JT Brown||RW||251||17||39||56||NHL||Tampa Bay Lightning|
If 2011 was about maximizing forward talent, 2012 was about doing everything else. The Lightning selected three defensemen. Slater Koekkoek should arguably be playing in the NHL this year, Dylan Blujus has unfortunately been repeatedly sidelined with injury, but then there is the real surprise — sixth-round pick Jake Dotchin. Dotchin started the year in Syracuse but worked his way onto the NHL roster, and is currently on the Lightning's top pairing with Victor Hedman. His arrival allowed the Bolts to move defensive stalwart Anton Stralman to the second pairing, strengthening the top four in Tampa. That balance has been crucial to the Lightning's recent resurgence.
The real stand-out pick here is starting goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. It is a perfect example of solid drafting complimenting savvy management. Yzerman conducted a three-way trade to land the 19th overall pick. He sent Steve Downie to Colorado for Kyle Quincey, and then promptly flipped Quincey to Detroit for a first-round pick. Murray and his team maximized the extra first round pick by selecting Vasilevskiy and securing the Bolts future in net.
Brian Hart hasn't panned out as expected. Tanner Richard is doing fine in the AHL. Cedric Paquette and JT Brown are regularly in the lineup. Nikita Gusev needs to come over from Russia (please?).
2013 Draft Picks
|1||3||Jonathan Drouin||RW||150||25||60||85||NHL||Tampa Bay Lightning|
|2||33||Adam Erne||LW||12||1||0||1||NHL||Tampa Bay Lightning|
|5||124||Krister Gudlevskis||G||3||AHL||Syracuse Crunch|
|6||154||Henri Ikonen||LW||AHL||Syracuse Crunch|
|7||186||Joel Vermin||RW||17||0||4||4||AHL||Syracuse Crunch|
|N/A||N/A||Andrej Sustr||D||260||7||45||52||NHL||Tampa Bay Lightning|
Yzerman was a busy man in 2013, making several trades, including dealing away many of the draft picks to strengthen the team.
Erne is also in the Bolts lineup this year and will likely remain there. Erne is the type of player that allows Yzerman the freedom to deal away pending unrestricted free agents (like Boyle) because he knows that young NHL-caliber players are ready to step into the spotlight.
Free-agent signing Andrej Sustr has been a fixture on the Bolts’ blue line for a few seasons.
The late round picks are okay, just okay. Gudlevskis is a solid starting goaltender for the AHL team. Vermin is a consistent contributor in Syracuse and was helpful during his call-ups this year. Ikonen is in and out of the AHL lineup, and Salminen is still playing in Finland.
2014 Draft Picks
|1||19||Anthony DeAngelo||D||28||4||7||11||NHL||Arizona Coyotes|
|2||35||Dominik Masin||D||AHL||Syracuse Crunch|
|2||57||Johnathan MacLeod||D||NCAA||Boston University|
|3||79||Brayden Point||C||54||11||15||26||NHL||Tampa Bay Lightning|
|4||119||Ben Thomas||D||AHL||Syracuse Crunch|
|6||170||Cristiano DiGiacinto||LW||CHL||Windsor Spitfires|
|7||185||Cameron Darcy||C||ECHL||Kalamazoo Wings|
This is where it gets a little tricky. If you want to criticize a choice, look no further than DeAngelo. He had a troubling history at the junior hockey level, including multiple suspensions for using racial slurs. The Bolts took a risk on him, hoping that he would mature as well as become more defensively responsible. For whatever reason, it didn't work, and he was traded away last summer.
Cristiano DiGiacinto, drafted in the sixth round at 170 overall, is the only player since 2011 that the organization has lost rights to with nothing in return. It's possible that Saku Salminen joins him this summer.
All is forgiven because the Bolts used their third round pick to select Point. It's difficult to explain just how important Point has been this season. With four centers injured and two more traded away, he has moved up to the first line between Palat and Kucherov. He's handled the transition well and is making the case to remain in the top six, even when the injured players return.
We cannot yet assess the remaining players because it is still early in their development.
2015 and 2016 Draft Picks
|Year||Rd||No.||Player||Pos||League||Team||World Juniors 2017|
|Year||Rd||No.||Player||Pos||League||Team||World Juniors 2017|
|2015||2||33||Mitchell Stephens||C||OHL||London Knights||Team Canada|
|2015||2||44||Matthew Spencer||D||OHL||Peterborough Petes|
|2015||3||64||Dennis Yan||LW||QMJHL||Shawinigan Cataractes|
|2015||3||72||Anthony Cirelli||C||OHL||Erie Otters||Team Canada|
|2015||4||118||Jonne Tammela||C||OHL||Peterborough Petes|
|2015||4||120||Mathieu Joseph||RW||QMJHL||Saint John Sea Dogs||Team Canada|
|2015||5||150||Ryan Zuhlsdorf||D||NCAA||Univ of Minnesota|
|2015||6||153||Kris Oldham||G||NCAA||Univ of Nebraska-Omaha|
|2015||6||180||Bokondji Imama||LW||QMJHL||Saint John Sea Dogs|
|2016||1||27||Brett Howden||C||OHL||Moosejaw Warriors|
|2016||2||37||Libor Hajek||D||WHL||Saskatoon Blades|
|2016||2||44||Boris Katchouk||LW||OHL||Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds|
|2016||2||58||Taylor Raddysh||RW||OHL||Erie Otters||Team Canada|
|2016||3||88||Connor Ingram||G||WHL||Kamloops Blazers||Team Canada|
|2016||4||118||Ross Colton||C||NCAA||Univ of Vermont|
|2016||5||148||Christopher Paquette||C||OHL||Peterborough Petes|
|2016||6||178||Oleg Sosunov||D||NMHL||Loko-Yunior Yaroslavl|
|2016||7||206||Otto Somppi||C||OHL||Halifax Mooseheads|
The most recent drafts feature players who have yet to play any professional games. It's way too early to tell if these players will pan out, but the fact that five of them were selected to play for Team Canada in the IIHF World Junior Championships is a good sign.
Al Murray has proven to be a brilliant Director of Amateur Scouting. Steve Yzerman was wise to hire him and has given him the tools to succeed.
Yzerplan Rating - The Draft: Success! It makes Steve Yzerman happy enough to laugh merrily on the phone.
Trust the Yzerplan.