Transcript: Yzerman on player traits, “Number one, good character is really important”

Transcribed for accessibility. Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman discusses the Syracuse Crunch playoff run, the qualities he looks for in players, and the goalie situation next season.

Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman was recently interviewed by Brent Axe (@BrentAxeMedia) during his “On the Block” segment on ESPN Syracuse. Axe asked Yzerman about Tampa’s relationship with the Syracuse Crunch, which players have impressed him the most, why he likes coach Ben Groulx, and the options for Crunch’s starting goaltender next season.

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

Brent Axe: Let’s talk to a gentleman who frankly needs no introduction, but I like to do these so we’ll do it anyway. He is currently the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He won three Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings. He’s a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, inducted in 2009. He was the longest serving captain in NHL history with the Red Wings.

He has been here in Syracuse watching this Crunch team make a run through the Calder Cup Playoffs. They’ll be back at it again Wednesday night at the War Memorial in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. We’re talking about Steve Yzerman who joins us here on ESPN Radio Syracuse. Steve, greatly appreciate your time. How are you doing, sir?

Steve Yzerman: I’m doing fine, thank you.

Atmosphere at the War Memorial Arena

Axe: Steve, I want to start right there. You have been here. You have seen these games. You have seen how much of an advantage it can be to play in that War Memorial, in that old rink. You had some great compliments about that, that the Crunch sent out the other day. Just want to ask you your experience of coming to these games and seeing playoff hockey at the War Memorial - a little old school hockey going there.

Yzerman: Yeah, well obviously it’s an older, traditional arena with a lot of character. The new arenas that are built today - they’re all very nice. All modern amenities and whatnot, but for the most part everything is pretty generic.

At the War Memorial, fans are right on top of you. It’s cramped quarters, although we made the ice surface 200 [feet] by 85 [feet] which we felt was important for our players and the way we want to play the game. It is a good building. Pretty much the fans [are] right on top of the players. It provides further motivation and can on occasion rattle your opponent a bit.

Relationship between Tampa and Syracuse

Axe: Steve, we have seen a terrific relationship between Syracuse and Tampa Bay since they became partners and you’ve been a part of it the whole way here. I just want to get your perspective on why you feel this has been such a great working relationship between Syracuse and Tampa.

Yzerman: Well, it starts with number one, we think Syracuse is a good hockey community. There are a couple of previous players from upstate New York - all over the state of New York, for that matter. The team is really supported very well by the Syracuse community and we put value on that. All of our players that play there enjoy living in the community and playing there.

[Syracuse Crunch President and Chief Executive Officer] Howard [Dolgon], [Chief Financial Officer] Vance [Lederman], and [Chief Operating Officer] Jim [Sarosy] have been great partners for us. We really enjoy working with them. They’re passionate about the Crunch. They really love the city of Syracuse. From our perspective as a partner, the thing is they want to win and we want to win. They’ve made a commitment along with us that they will do whatever we have to do to run a good program. We’ve really enjoyed it.

They do a lot of fun things there. This year you watch, they’ve got the lip syncs going on. [Axe laughs]

Yzerman: They have a lot of fun along the way and we really appreciate that. It has been great and we look forward to continuing. Hopefully at one point here we can also win a championship. The team’s been there for a long time and they’re ready to win again.

Important player traits

Axe: Steve, this is a question that’s been discussed before but it’s great to get it right from the horse’s mouth, per se. When you are overseeing this, you are looking down here to Syracuse and developing players to go to Tampa Bay. What would you say really describes the ideal player in the Tampa Bay Lightning system? What you look for and what you want these players to develop into.

Yzerman: Well, I guess more than one thing, but the things we’re looking for - number one, good character is really important. We want good people. We’re taking young men here [at] 18 years old and going forward, that it takes time for them to mature and develop. Their character is evolving over time. We look for character. We look for players that are very competitive.

These are all the traits - character, competitiveness, obviously skill, athletic ability, skating ability, and then intelligence. So you need some form of all of those things. Every player has different strengths, but those are the elements that we look for in a player. They could be developed and evolve over time. Hopefully they go all in a positive direction, but sometimes over time people change and things don’t work out as well.

Making a deep playoff run

Axe: Talking to Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman with us here on ESPN Syracuse. The Crunch play Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday night at the Onondoga County War Memorial. Steve, sometimes you just need a lot of things to come together at the right time and it did for this Crunch team. They got enough players back from Tampa to get acclimated, play a few games. They go into the postseason and now we kind of really see this team coming together.

That’s a hard thing to do, to kind of throw everybody back together and say, “Hey, go out there and make a deep run in the postseason,” but they’ve been able to do that thus far. They really have the capability to go far and compete for a championship, as you said.

Generally, what would you attribute that to? How these guys were able to come together and just put together this team? There’s a lot of talent there certainly, but as you know it takes more than talent to build a championship team. When you look at it, why do you think this is gelling the way that it is, and doing it late in the year?

Yzerman: Well, we had a lot of players from the Crunch up [in Tampa] really throughout the course of the season, but in particular at the end of the year due to injuries and some trades we made. We brought up a lot of players. We were able to get everybody back, and for the most part healthy, back to the Crunch for the playoffs. One player we didn’t make eligible that the Crunch could have used would be Luke Witkowski but everybody else has filled in. Mathieu Brodeur has come in and done a good job. The younger defensemen have done a real good job.

You’re absolutely right, a lot of stuff has to come together at the right time for any team, whether it’s the NHL or the American Hockey League, in any league to have a long, successful playoff run. Health is a big part of it. We do have some banged up guys, but for the most part the team has remained healthy. And match-ups are key. For whatever reason, everybody has that one opponent that regardless of whether it’s a number one seed or the eighth seed, you have those opponents that you have a tough time with. So a lot of it has to fall into place to have a long run and to win a championship.

Right now we’ve got our hands full with a very different opponent in Providence than we had in Toronto. Different type of team, they play a different style. Listening to [the radio station segment] prior to coming on, they’re very very good on the road. We’re pleased to get a [one game won, one game lost] split in Providence. Tried to steal that one last night, weren’t able to do that. We let an opportunity get away and now we’ve got to come home knowing we’re playing against a pretty experienced team that is very good on the road.

Most impressive players

Axe: Steve, there’s a lot of players we could mention here, but I do want to ask you - through this postseason, who has stood out to you in being the key players in this run? Who has just impressed you with some improvements they’ve made, how they’ve played? You tell me some names that have really jumped at you here in this playoffs for the Crunch.

Yzerman: Well I would start by saying here we are, two games into the third round. If you look back at all the games that have been played, there’s been contributions - great contributions - from everyone. Different line combinations, defensive pairings, individual performances on every given night. Collectively, it’s been a real good effort by everyone and that’s why the team is here.

It’s tough for the young players, particularly the young D-men [defensemen], to come out and play in the American Hockey League as regulars, now playing in the third round. You look at your Dominik Masin and Ben Thomas as first year D-men that have really come in and done a good job. It’s a difficult thing to do.

I watch Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin playing heavy, big, big minutes and doing very well. Of course you have Matt Taormina on the back end there, the veteran coming up with a lot of good, key plays at important moments in the games.

Then up front, really everybody’s been really good for us. I’ll start with some of these younger guys. Adam Erne playing in his first year is getting better with each round. Matthew Peca in his second year is really evolving as a clutch player and playing a good two-way style of hockey.

I look at all of our veterans. They’re all playing very well. Yanni Gourde you have to think of as a veteran, is still young. Yanni and Cory Conacher. Erik Condra has done a fantastic job under pressure, keeping everyone focused, calm, and relaxed, and playing the game the right way.

Really I could go down the entire roster and comment on the players. They’ve all made valuable contributions.

Coach Benoit Groulx

Axe: Speaking of making contributions, I don’t think there’s any question that would describe how Ben Groulx has come in and coached this team, Steve. You and [Lightning Assistant GM / Crunch GM] Julien [BriseBois] made the [head coaching] change before last season. Ben has come in, implemented his style, his system, and furthered what Tampa Bay wants to do here at the Syracuse level.

What did you see in Ben when you brought him in? Obviously he’s brought this team this far. Do you think he has the makings of a coach that could be in the National Hockey League someday?

Yzerman: I do believe he’ll be a coach in the National Hockey League, it’s just a matter of when. He’s been very successful at the junior level for a long time. When people - constantly their teams are competitive and win championships; he’s won a world championship with the Canadian junior team. It’s not by accident. His teams are constantly competitive and he’s gone deep in the playoffs and won.

It’s his first year in the American League. It is a bit of an adjustment going from junior hockey to the American League. He’s been in the American League before, so he had a pretty good handle on it coming in.

What I really like - he takes charge. It’s his team. The players know he’s the head coach. What he demands is the guys play hard, play fast, and it’s a high-pressure type of game. He demands his players to be competitive and holds them very very accountable. He’s upfront with them and straightforward with them. They know where they stand, good or bad. I think players appreciate that.

I like the style of play the Crunch play. I like the habits that he teaches, the principles, and the style of play that he wants the team to play. Like I say, I don’t think Ben [Groulx] is in any hurry, but I believe that over time NHL teams will come calling for him.

Goaltenders for next season

Axe: Steve, one last thought from you here. You only go as far as your goaltender can take you in the postseason, as you well know having won three Stanley Cups. Mike McKenna has been fantastic throughout the postseason. He’s had some blips on the radar screen, certainly I know he’d like back. He’s been solid overall. To bring him in late in the year, make the trade, acclimate himself, and gain the respect of his teammates - he has certainly done that.

I think that the second part of my question is, and I know there’s decisions that have to be made and this is not in stone, but it seems he would make a great mentor for Connor Ingram who’s a young up-and-coming goaltender that’s going to be coming through the system in the near future.

Yzerman: Mike has played really well throughout the playoffs. Actually he looks like he’s getting better, looking like he’s getting more comfortable with each game. Pucks are sticking to him, hitting him in the chest. He’s reading the play very well. I think his play has improved with each round, with each playoff game.

As far as what we do next year, right now we’re in the middle of the third round. We’re not about to talk about contracts or anything with any of our players at this time. It’s all about playing the games and winning them, being focused on that. It’s obviously a situation we’re going to address immediately at the end of the season.

Axe: Good problem to have in a lot of ways. Steve, I know you’re a really busy guy - so much happening. You’ve got players in the Calder Cup playoffs, in the World Championships, the Memorial Cup - there’s a lot happening, a lot of things for you to keep an eye on. I appreciate you taking a few minutes to talk with us. Hopefully we’ll see you Wednesday night for Game 3.

Yzerman: My pleasure, looking forward to it. It’s going to be exciting. We’ve got three in a row here at the War Memorial. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I hope our players, I hope our team responds really well to a tough challenge here ahead.

Axe: Thank you, Steve. We’ll talk again soon.

Yzerman: My pleasure, thanks.

Axe: Thank you. That’s Steve Yzerman, heard of that guy? General manager of the Tampa Bay Lighting, three-time Stanley Cup champion, Hockey Hall of Famer.