Transcript: Yzerman on Kucherov, “He’s an elite player”

Transcribed for accessibility. Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman discusses defensive lapses this season, the growth of Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Nikita Kucherov’s status as an “elite forward.”

Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman was recently interviewed by Steve Duemig on 620 WDAE.

Quick Note: For the sake of clarity and fluency, I have omitted extraneous uses of the phrases “and,” “you know,” “but,” and “um.”

Steve Duemig: Vice President and General Manager of your Tampa Bay Lightning, Steve Yzerman. Good afternoon Steve. How are you doing?

Steve Yzerman: I’m doing fine Steve. How about yourself?

Duemig: Well, I’ve been better. [chuckles]

Yzerman: Great to have you back on the air, that’s for sure.

Duemig: Yeah, well it’s good to be back, certainly. I missed the end of the Lightning season, but certainly - health reasons looked into that. Let’s get into some questions, Steve. You looked on the outside after a nice playoff run. Were the injuries somewhat to blame? Or you don’t want to look for excuses?

Yzerman: Well they didn’t make it any easier, that’s for sure. [Duemig laughs] But like every team - I was going to say every team, but the majority of teams at some point in the season get hit by the injury bug. You find a way over the course of the season to scrape points out of games, to pick up a point here and there that can make the difference of making it [into the playoffs] or not.

Really when we were healthy early in the season, I think just off the top of my head, we lost Stammer [Steven Stamkos] around Game 18. Other than that, we had the majority of our team. We had a couple of stretches where we lost a lot of games.

To answer your question, the injuries didn’t help but no - I think the biggest reason, we just - we had trouble. We gave up too many quality [scoring] chances as a team. Our play, defensively as a team we weren’t good enough. I think that’s the reason we fell behind the eight-ball and we weren’t able - despite a great push at the end of the season, we weren’t able to get in.

Duemig: Will that be a priority, since you brought it up, at the [NHL entry] draft? Or trade, as far as defensively is concerned?

Yzerman: Yeah again, when I say as a team we didn’t play. Our goaltending, Vasy [Andrei Vasilevskiy] - I’m really pleased with the season he had. But for a while, our starting goaltending between Ben [Bishop] and Vasy for a while was around 0.910 [save percentage]. Starting goaltenders need to be 0.920 plus.

As a team, it wasn’t particularly our defense. We gave up too many chances. You just don’t pinpoint the defense or the goaltending. It’s the entire team, so really it’ll be addressed by the coaching staff. We have to get back to being a tight defensive team that doesn’t give up a lot of chances.

Duemig: People don’t really think that that’s a lot. When you said 0.910 to 0.920, but you put that over the course of an 82 game schedule and that’s a bunch of goals, is it not?

Yzerman: Yeah definitely. If a goalie’s at 0.910, they’ve had some 0.920 games and they’ve have some 0.900 games. That gets them to 0.910. Simply, you just look around the league. You look on a nightly basis, the teams on the winning side, their goaltenders are 0.920 and above. The teams that lose, their goaltenders 0.900 or lower. That’s an important stat [statistic]. It can dictate wins and losses.

But again, I’m not pinpointing the goaltending here. As a team, we left these guys at times out to dry. Our coaches keep stats on Grade A and B [scoring chances], and what kind of chances you give up. We were probably - judging by our own coaches - we would be one of the highest teams in giving up Grade A scoring chances.

Duemig: Well that’s hopefully going to change. I know you’re watching the [International Ice Hockey Federation] World Championships, but were you satisfied with the way Vasilevskiy settled in at the end of the season? He’s got three shutouts in the World Championships now. Is he maturing enough and settling into the starter’s role where you’re satisfied? Or does he have to get better?

Yzerman: I expect him to get better, for sure. He wants to get better. We think we have a young man that has a chance to be a really really good starting goaltender for a long time. Historically for young goaltenders, it’s the toughest position to break into.

I know he’s got the athletic ability, the desire, the drive to do it. He just needs some experience. Part of that experience is the ups and downs of going through the course of a season. He handled those extremely well this year.

I’m really pleased with the direction he’s going. We have high expectations and he has high expectations. He’ll continue to improve I think for a couple of years.

Duemig: Do you have the back-up [goalie] in your system? Do you have Vasy’s back-up in your system?

Yzerman: Well right now we have Connor Ingram who played junior hockey last year, he’s going to turn pro. He has turned pro, he’s with the [Lightning’s American Hockey League affiliate] team in Syracuse right now. We have two - Mike McKenna and Kristers Gudlevskis - both of their contracts are up at the end of the season. We have to decide on what we’re going to do. Peter Budaj finished the season [with the Lightning]. We were very pleased with the finish of the season that Peter had. We’d very much be interested in bringing Peter back. As the off-season winds down here, or the playoffs wind down, we get closer to July 1. We’ll figured out what we’re going to do for backup and goaltending, even in Syracuse.

Duemig: Any word on [Vladislav] Namestnikov’s injury in the Worlds?

Yzerman: Nothing yet, no. I was watching the game. I believe he blocked a shot. I haven’t heard anything. Hopefully we’ll hear something maybe from his agent, maybe from Vladdy [Namestnikov]. I don’t expect the Russian national team to give us a call and give us an update.

Duemig: [laughs] I wouldn’t either, as far as that’s concerned. It’s got to be a general manager’s nightmare to sit there and watch your team. You want them to be able to play but you’re holding your breath, are you not?

Yzerman: I don’t worry too much. The guys - I’m glad they’re there. I want them to play. The reality is that they can get hurt crossing the street, so I just don’t worry about it. I think it’s a good experience for them.

Duemig: Alright, well good. That’s fine with me. We’re watching [Nikita] Kucherov play with the Russian team. I will ask about his statements post-season, but he’s putting that all behind him. He’s got I think six goals already and doing some good things in the World Championships.

Yzerman: Yeah, he’s a great player. I think they’ve got him on a line with [Chicago Blackhawks forward Artemi] Panarin. I know he’s played a little bit with Vladdy. He’s an elite player. I expect him to do well over there.

Duemig: You have to be starting your planning in two more years. Is it two more or three more?

Yzerman: Two more, yeah. His contract is up in two [years]. For sure we’ll have to make sure we have the cap space available, assuming he continues on the career path he’s on. Again, I expect him to get even better. We’ll be prepared for that when the time comes.

Duemig: Well I would ask you, is he on the level with Stamkos as far as the scoring is concerned?

Yzerman: He’s a little bit different type of player than Stammer. He hasn’t been in the league - like Stammer’s done it year after year after year. Kuch is on his way to that level. We see him as an elite forward in the NHL, just like Stammer.

Duemig: Well Steve, I appreciate you calling in. It’s a treat to get to talk to you in the off-season. I’ll see you up in Chicago at the draft. I want to get back in the swing of things and Chicago is a special place for me. Thank you very much for joining us. Take it easy.

Yzerman: [chuckles] All right Steve. You take it easy. I’ll see you in Chicago.

Duemig: All right. I’ll definitely be taking it easy. Thank you. Steve Yzerman, our guest. A little bit early, but you take him when you can get him. That’s a bonus.