Exit Interview: Steve Yzerman, “I don’t think injuries are the reason we did not make the playoffs”

Transcribed for accessibility. Steve Yzerman discusses early season defensive breakdowns, roster decisions, the emergence of young players, Stamkos’s recovery, and his perspective on mental fatigue.

As the season ends, members of Tampa Bay Lightning reflect on the ups and downs of a very tumultuous season. For the sake of clarity and fluency, I have omitted extraneous uses of the phrases “you know,” “obviously,” “and,” “so,” and “but.”

Question: Steve, how do you kind of balance the encouragement of the last 20-30 games with the big picture and the disappointment of being where you are right now?

Steve Yzerman: Well, our goal at the start of the season was to make the playoffs. We failed in that goal. Along the way, a lot of things happened - good and bad. Nonetheless, here we are today.

There are a lot of positive things. We bring up some of the younger players and they all do very well. Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Jonathan Drouin all had very positive seasons, all moving in a really good direction in their careers. There’s a lot of things to feel good about.

We as a team, we got humbled a little bit here. I know there was a lot of injuries, but ultimately I don’t think injuries are the reason we did not make the playoffs. It didn’t help by any means, but we’ve got to figure out ways to win games. There’s teams that are in the playoffs today that battled, overcame similar situation to us this year to make it into the playoffs.

There are a lot of positive things here. We’re encouraged by a lot of the things. Ultimately, I think we’re all better, we all learned from it. The coaching staff, myself, even our players go through this experience again. It’s somewhat of - I guess a road to trying to win the Stanley Cup. We hit a major bump in the road and we’ll continue on towards that goal.

Question: If it wasn’t injuries [that cause the Lightning to miss the playoffs], what do think it was in your mind? The players talked about not having the first half consistency and the urgency at the beginning of the season.

Yzerman: Yeah. Ultimately break it down to this. For whatever reason, we gave up too many quality scoring chances for the better part of 50 games in this season. And that’s it. That goes towards our team.

That results - these Grade-A scoring chances we’re giving up, that’s the result of our team play. It’s not an indictment on our goaltending. It’s an indictment on our team play. We got away from it.

The best teams in the league keep the puck out of the net. They keep the chances and the shots against down. Regardless of who’s in the lineup, who’s injured, who’s healthy - you’ve got to figure out a way to win hockey games. Usually when you’re missing some of your firepower, the best way to do that is to lock it down defensively.  We had a tough time doing that for stretches of the season.

Down the stretch we were very good and we came very close. It was a very productive run at the end of the season. We just came up short.

Question: Steve, one of the main priorities coming into this year was improvement on the power play. You saw significant improvement with that. Is there an area now that you look for next year to say, “We’ve got to get better here.” You talked about this in playing better defense, I know there were some games in there. There weren’t a whole lot of blocks [against shots] in January and February. Was that the part that you think needs to be improved on?

Yzerman: Well again, just - we talked about analytics and all this new data and new stats and whatnot. Ultimately you look at it at the end of the year. The teams that are fighting at the end of the year, that are standing are the best defensive hockey teams. They keep the puck out of their net. Mostly they keep the chances against down.

You need great goaltending, but as a style of play, you need to keep the goals against down, keep the chances against down. We’ll strive to have a good power play again next year. Our penalty killing was up and down, but was very strong down the stretch. Not coincidentally, we won a lot of hockey games.

We will continue to get back to being a really conscientious good defensive hockey team. Keep the puck out of our net, that’ll be an improvement. Hopefully we continue to be amongst the top teams in offensive production. We’ve got to get back to where our goals-against is among at least the top 10 in the league.

Question: You got better down the stretch defensively in goals-against in that respect. Are the answers in the current roster as it is? I know it’s hard to change people, to change the team, over the course of the summer. Do you think there needs to be some subtle changes around there to make sure that the team’s a better defensive team as a whole?

Yzerman: Well, I guess Joe, I would say we’re going to always look at ways to try and get better. What do we need to do to get better? Whether it be from within, kids coming up. We look at Jake Dotchin playing on the blue line. Brayden Point coming in. Even Yanni Gourde, all the players - Adam Erne, all the players that came up.

We’ll look through free agency, we’ll look through trades to try and improve our team. Specifically, I can’t tell you I want to do this or that. Again, we’ll look at other ways. We need to get better. We took a step back here this year. We’ll explore all different - every way we possibly can to try and improve the team.

Question: Does this off-season provide a different challenge in terms of your plans to get better than last year? Obviously you got those extensions last season to key players [Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy], but what are the key things this year for you?

Yzerman: Well again, last year we were - you mentioned trying to keep our group together. While we were able to do that up until the trade deadline, but Victor’s contract extension kicks in this year. We did it last summer, but it kicks in. His [salary] cap number’s virtually doubling [from 4 million to 7.875 million]. That cap space has got to come from somewhere.

We made some trades at the deadline that free up cap space. Our off-season changes a little bit. Last year, it was mainly maintaining the team. This year, we still have some important players that we’re looking to get locked up. In making the trades we did at the deadline, there are roster spots open here. Whether we elect to do that through trade, through free agency, or if our young guys can continue to move in, move in one or two young guys.

It’ll all be dependent on one, what the cap is and then ultimately we’ve got to deal with this [Vegas Golden Knights] expansion draft to see what happens there. We really haven’t paid a lot of attention to that, to this point. That’s something between now and June, I have some time to kind of figure out what we’re going to do in that regard and prepare for that.

We traded three players [Ben Bishop, Brian Boyle, Valtteri Filppula]. There are spots open on this roster and we’ve got to figure out how we fill that and then deal with the expansion draft. We have an idea of what the [salary] cap is going to be, but we won’t know for certain really until late into June.

We’ve got a lot of things to do between now and then and we’ll be ready to go come the expansion draft. It’ll be the first, I guess, major happening for our organization.

Question: Do you expect to be able to sign Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, and Tyler Johnson with the cap space you currently have?

Yzerman: I think we can sign all the players we need to sign.

Question: There was so much uncertainty going into last summer. While each summer has its own sense of it, are you a little bit more firm about the direction of where you’re taking this team? In terms of you’ve got Stammer locked up now, you’ve got Victor locked up, Vasy’s entrenched as the number one [starting goaltender]. Maybe going into last summer, it was a little less certain.

Yzerman: There’s uncertainty when you have Unrestricted Free Agents (UFAs), you’re not really sure. The Restricted Free Agents (RFAs), I think we do have some control over the situation. It just comes down to, do you end up in arbitration or are you able to work out a longer term deal. We like to think we know our players reasonably well at this point. We’ve been together for quite a while.

We have an idea of what we need to improve our team. It’s, how do we get that done? How do you find those players? Where do you find them? Is it through the [NHL entry] draft? Is it through free agency? Is is through trade?

Do we have certainty? I kind of have certainty. I guess you can’t “kind of have certainty.” Either you do or you don’t. [smiles]

Question: Seeing how well the young guys played, have they exceeded your expectations? Has the timetable maybe sped up on some of these guys that you maybe weren’t sure if they were ready yet?

Yzerman: I’m pleased with how everybody performed in a relatively short window. They all did extremely well. I’ll use Jake Dotchin for example. He was a third-year pro. At the start of the year our hope was, “Hey, let’s get Jake in. Call him up, get him into some games because next year he needs waivers. Let’s see if we can find out - is he an NHL player?” We were hoping to get him up here, we got him up here and he did extremely well.

We really went for all of them - Yanni Gourde, Adam Erne, all the players that we called up. Gabriel Dumont, Michael Bournival - they all really contributed to us winning hockey games. Again, they’re all at different stages of their careers. Some of them are Group 5 UFAs. Some of them are RFAs. Some of them have time, they don’t need waivers. It gives us some flexibility on what we’re going to do.

They’re all very encouraging. Some of the guys that are free agents, we’ll at the end of Syracuse’s [Crunch] season, decide what we’re going to do. Try to bring back some of the guys that contributed well for us.

Question: Steve, you mentioned the inability to cut down on premium scoring chances as the real downfall here. The coaches mentioned that way back in November, December, January - saw that happening. What was it that was creating that problem? Was it talent? Was it just a lack of focus from the players? Because the coaches kept harping on it.

Yzerman: I can’t give you a specific reason why. We did not play well. The second half of the season or the last 25 games or so, things were significantly different. Did we have an off-year? Did we under-perform? I know our guys came into training camp in tip-top shape. We struggled. We weren’t able to get things done.

It wasn’t like it wasn’t being talked about amongst the coaches and the players on a daily basis. Things just don’t happen overnight necessarily. I wish they would. Honestly, I don’t have a real good answer why things in late November, early December, even into January - we’d go out on a couple of road trips and play extremely well in some of these buildings and then come back and kind of lay an egg on games - based on the standings, these games we should win, we weren’t able to do that.

We underachieved. We didn’t play well. That’s I guess the best answer I can give. Why we didn’t play well? [chuckles] If we knew the answer to why we don’t play well, we’d never not play well. [laughs]

Question: How much did Brayden Point’s play really open your eyes? I mean, we all knew he had potential but to see him come in and then in the second half of the season step up, especially when Tyler Johnson was out and fulfill that number one [center] role.

Yzerman: Prior to training camp our thought was, “Okay Brayden. Where do we pencil him in?” We thought Brayden would go to Syracuse and we thought he’d be a real good player for us in Syracuse. With really no timetable on [if] he’s going to be in Syracuse for one year or two years or three years. We felt watching him in junior that he’s a real good player. We expected him at some point to be a real good NHL player.

He came into training camp and performed very well. Prior to that, the rookie tournament, he was very good over in Florida. He did really good there, came into preseason, looked good in practice. He looked good in the preseason games. Ultimately when our roster at the start of the season I said, “You know what? He’s playing pretty good. He deserves to stay.” Then it’s “Well, let’s give it a shot. See how he does.” Every time we thought about it, it was, “You know what? He’s playing pretty good. Let’s just keep him here. Leave him in the lineup.”

He got better and better, overcame an injury. Down the stretch, he was relied on heavily and he did a really good job. He’s way ahead of the curve we had expected for him, the plan for him last September. Hopefully he has a strong off-season and comes back and continues to - there’s no guarantee that you keep going forward.

We’ll really impress upon him the importance of having a really strong off-season and come in. It’s a tough league. You just can’t assume that it’s going to go well. He’s a very mature, very responsible young man. He’s really worked at his game from the time that we drafted him. He’s done everything we asked to get better and better. It looks like our scouts did a great job and found a real good young player.

Question: You guys have had two long post-season runs the last two years. This year you won’t have that. You played and you went through long playoff runs. Is there anything to having a little bit of extra time this summer? Do you believe in that fatigue factor?

Yzerman: I’d prefer to have short summers and deal with the problem. There’s two things. One, the more you’re on the ice, the more you play, the more intense hockey you play - the reality is you’re going to get banged up. You’re going to get injuries. You look at the teams that play.

The more you’re out there, the more chance of getting hurt. It’s as simple as that. I think that we’ve played a lot of hockey over the last two years plus the World Cup. Our guys are on the ice a lot. You’re blocking shots, you’re getting hit. Eventually you get banged up. Just the odds are against you a little bit for that.

I do think there is - having gone through it as a player - I do think there are times throughout the course of a year, throughout your career depending on - where you’re mentally drained a little bit. I think you could, maybe going back to your question earlier on why some of these [defensive breakdowns and losses] occurred, I think mentally we weren’t there at times.

As much as you want to say, “Yeah! Yeah!” it’s hard to hard to dig down and find that energy. That’s why it’s hard to repeat. The teams that win Stanley Cups, it’s hard for them to repeat. You look at Pittsburgh, they’re doing a heck of a job getting into the playoffs this year. They played so much hockey, they’ve got all these injuries. If they can get their guys back, have a chance to repeat. They’ve played a lot of hockey, they’ve been banged up.

For our guys, two really good playoff runs. We were hoping to have another one. Certainly we come into training camp. Hopefully everybody’s well-healed from whatever injuries they’ve had. Mentally you’re ready to go. We can’t afford to have any - we have a couple of stretches there that ultimately cost us a playoff spot.

Question: That mental fatigue that you talked about as a player, did that tend to show up earlier in the season or later?

Yzerman: Really, earlier. I found it harder coming back in seasons where we lost. In ‘95, we got swept by the Devils in the Finals. We come back for the ‘96 season, although we had a really good year that year, but it was - you know that you’ve got to go all the way through the season just to get into the playoffs and then to get over that hump.

Psychologically, it’s like “Oh my God. We’ve got go through all that again? Just to get there? And we’re trying to win.” I found it easier, you win a Stanley Cup or you have a pretty good summer, you roll into training camp. You’re just kind of living off or playing off of that adrenaline that you had for last year.

I think it’s harder to come back when you haven’t won. This time off for our guys. I don’t want to say it’s a good thing, but we’ve got to make the most of the time.

Question: How do you feel about the way the coaching staff did, that Cooper did? I know you were missing some of your best players all season. 37 different guys in the lineup. I know you mentioned the team underachieved, so no one is happy with anything at this point.

Yzerman: I think our coaching staff had to make a lot of adjustments. Things weren’t working and they had to figure out ways to make it work. Then you get all these injuries and you’ve got to use all these players in different situations. We all learn a lot from it.

For Coop and his staff, we’ll be in these situations again. Whether it’s October, November, whatever - injuries, slumps, and all that. Figure out ways to do things. What worked, what didn’t work. In general, I thought - again collectively, I know we’re extremely disappointed we don’t make the playoffs.

But our players, our coaching staff - I think they did everything they could. We figured things out along the way to give us a good chance to win. We just come up short.

Again I’ve talked to you a lot, I’ve talked to the players [about] how hard it is to make the playoffs in the league. It’s like, “Ah, everybody makes the playoffs in the NHL.” Well they don’t. We got 94 points, it’s only three points different than last year when we went to Game 7 of the [Eastern] Conference Finals.

You just can’t afford to throw away points. You’ve got to fight every night, find a way to get a point, get two points any way you can. Find a way not to give up a point because you never know when it’s going to come back and bite you. Unfortunately some of the games we lost for different various reasons. At the end of it, it came back and bit us in the end.

Question: You mentioned those games with teams you probably should have beaten, based on the standings. Do you look at those games, going 1-5 against the three bottom teams in the league [Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, and Vancouver Canucks] as just one victory against one of those teams and you’re in [the playoffs].

Yzerman: Potentially, yeah. Again, you back over the course of the season, “if this” or “if that.” There were some tough losses along the way for a lot of different reasons. On any given night in the league, if you’re not sharp, if you’re not ready to go, you’re going to lose.

Just based on the standings, that’s what I say is, “This is a game we need to win.” We had Phoenix [Arizona Coyotes] come in here late in the season. No disrespect whatsoever, but you’re looking at the standings and you’re saying, “Okay. We’ve got to win this one. We’re fresh. There’s no reason we shouldn’t win it.”

We had a lead in the third period and they’re a talented young group of players. They capitalized on it. It was a tough loss for us in a game that we needed to win.

Yzerman: My point is, around the whole league, if you’re not ready to go and you’re not sharp on any given night, you’re not going to beat anybody regardless of whether you’re first or in last place.

If you go back over the last month, you looked around. Nobody in the league was happy. The teams that were in the bottom of the standings, they’re beating the first place teams and they’re not happy because of where they are in the standings. The first place teams are concerned, “God, we just lost to a last place team!”

The league has a lot of parity. There’s a lot of hope for teams that don’t make the playoffs. Everybody is - there’s not much difference.

Question: As you make your plans going forward, are you making them with the confidence that Steven Stamkos will be 100%?

Yzerman: Yeah. Yeah. The procedure that he had, it just takes time. In the long run, it’s the best possible outcome that they were able to repair the cartilage in his knee. Unfortunately, it takes time for that - it’s somewhere between four and six months to heal. I think he’s getting close to the five month mark.

Stammer trains hard, he’s a real good athlete, and he loves to play. Whether he needs a little time in the Fall or whatnot, I don’t know that. A good off-season, I’m confident his knee’s going to be great and he’s going to come out and be the great player that he is and the dynamic player that he is. Mostly again, he trains hard, he’s a great athlete, and he loves to play.

He’s overcome a couple of tough things in the past. This is the third one. He’ll overcome it. At the end of your career, it’s a tough game to play. At the end of it, you come out of it pretty beat up.

Question: You went through that same surgery, you mentioned before. How long did it take you to heal?

Yzerman: Actually, I didn’t have that procedure specifically. I had actually the same injury, but for whatever reason they couldn’t repair it and I had mine [meniscus] removed. The good news is you come back to play sooner, but over the long run it’s not the best thing for your knee.

Question: We know what you miss with Steven [Stamkos] on the ice. But what you miss is his absence in the room and the leadership that he brings. Is there a way to kind of quantify what that means to a team?

Yzerman: Stammer’s in the prime of his career. He’s one of the top goal-scorers. He’s a dynamic player. I’m not in the locker room with the players, but speaking from my own experiences, as you go through a season it’s nice to be able to look down the bench or look across the locker room and knowing, “Hey that guy’s going to make a difference here.” We didn’t have him out there - he wasn’t able to make that difference on the ice and be in the room every day. It’s difficult.

He’s the captain of the team, the leader of the team. It’s difficult if you’re not on the ice every day and in that room every day to really have the full impact of your experience and of your leadership. We missed him a lot. Having said that, we have a good core of guys in there. For the most part, a really experienced group. You have to overcome it.

No question he was missed on the ice, but his attitude, his personality is missed when you’re out for that extended period of time. We’ve been able to overcome it in the past, but we needed it more than ever this year. You’ve got to figure out a way to get in [to the playoffs]. If we figure out a way to get in, he’s likely coming back.

Question: Steve, can you talk about the last couple of days for you? The emotions of winning a couple of games north of the border [against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens] and then the Penguins losing to the Maple Leafs [to eliminate the Lightning from the playoffs].  Then yesterday with the closing of  the Joe [Louis Arena in Detroit]. Can you just talk about your emotions the last couple of days?

Yzerman: Well we’re following our team. We know the situation we’re in. We know, I guess, the odds of getting in were against us. Everybody worked extremely hard every day. It was playoff mode for really the last month and the guys responded. The team responded really well. I know the coaches did a good job in preparing the team and ready to play. It was great experience for us all.

You’re sitting there hoping that the Penguins can win that one. Toronto’s a pretty talented young team. We just played them, we were able to beat them, but you’re watching them. They’re well-coached, they’re well-organized. It’s like, “You know what? We need some luck here,” because that’s a talented group of guys. They’re going to figure out a way to win a game. Also the Islanders are right there as well. So Saturday night is very disappointing, once we hear the result of the game.

Last night going into the Detroit, obviously I was hoping that our game [against the Buffalo Sabres] meant something yesterday. I was happy to be part of the closing of Joe Louis Arena. I played my entire career in that building. To be there to witness it and see a lot of people - former teammates, former employees in the building, and people sitting in the stands. It was a really good night. It was bittersweet for me, but I was happy to be there. I’m glad I got to witness the closing of the building.