The Tampa Bay Lightning’s recent success has garnered much more appreciation for Steve Yzerman, their former general manager.
In the last three years alone, Yzerman has made a name for himself with being able to spot a diamond in the rough in seemingly any draft, especially when looking at his drafting of Moritz Seider in 2019 for the Detroit Red Wings. Seider was initially projected to go in the latter half of the first round but instead became a top prospect in his draft class and among all other general prospects. He was also the best defenseman for the German National Team, the SHL, and the World Championship. Finally, he appears to be a Calder Memorial Trophy candidate heading into the 2021-22 NHL season. Incredibly, this was a pick that fans across the world made fun of Yzerman for.
But Yzerman has been doing this for years, or at least since 2010 when he became the general manager of the now two-time, back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions Lightning.
Before proceeding, please note that this will be a one-of-many-parts in my “Trust The Yzerplan” series. The initial plan was for this to be a single, standalone article, and then I’d move on to what the Yzerplan means for Detroit. Still, upon further investigation, Nikita Kucherov alone can turn any article into an essay. So, do stay tuned for the other parts of this series.
Drafting For Success
With the way that Tampa Bay plays, one might think they’re a team built on first-round, top ten pick superstars. Well, they’re certainly a team built on superstars, but not in the way that you might think. Only two of their top five point leaders, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, were taken in the first round. The other three consist of Nikita Kucherov (58th), Brayden Point (79th), and Alex Killorn (77th). Oh, and let’s not forget that Andrei Vasilevskiy is also a 1st round pick (19th).
It’s not a revolutionary concept. Anyone who’s spent a decent amount of time analyzing Tampa as a team has realized that some of the best members of Tampa’s core aren’t the most highly touted players of each draft class.
The same could be said about any NHL core; you can’t build a team, realistically, on nothing but first-round picks, and there will always be small gold mines in every round. But Tampa Bay seems a bit overpowered for a team not relying on tanking every year so that they can get the highest possible draft picks and eventually assume ultimate dominance over the NHL. So, no, it’s not black magic, no one’s soul was sold- Yzerman has a good eye for talent. A great eye, even.
Looking at Kucherov’s success alone, you might be thinking the same as everyone else in the hockey world, which would be: “Holy crap, how were 57 players selected before Kucherov, and what was my general manager thinking in not taking him?” That is unless you’re a Tampa Bay fan, and your general manager was Yzerman.
Players drafted before Kucherov consist of, though are not limited to, some of the following: Miikka Salomaki, William Karlsson, Matt Nieto, Joel Edmundson, Brandon Saad, Boone Jenner, Rocco Grimaldi, and, selected at 57th right before Kucherov, Tyler Wotherspoon, to the Calgary Flames.
Some might suggest that there’s really no way to know how a player will turn out; busts happen all the time. Sometimes players bloom in their early years and bust when they get to the show. Anomalies occur all over the league, and one of the great mysteries of hockey is its consistent ability to be unpredictable on all occasions. However, reading Kucherov’s scouting report may suggest that perhaps Yzerman didn’t look into the future to see exactly how great he would be but that the signs were there all along. It just took a trusting GM to listen.
Eldon McDonald had this to say about Kucherov in his Top 120 Rankings over on The Hockey Spy, way back in 2011:
“What kind of player is Nikita Kucherov??? Game-breaker would be the easy answer or heart breaker if you are playing for the other side.“
Before the draft, many people, like McDonald, had assumed that Kucherov was “too small.” Not only are we coming into a time where we’re seeing that size isn’t all that matters in a hockey player (see: Juuse Saros, Cam Atkinson, Ryan Ellis, Vince Dunn, etc.), but we’re also seeing these players that were written off making huge breakthroughs, either despite their size.
This is a trend with Yzerman. He sees players written off early on into the draft process for whatever supposed disadvantage they may have, or simply the belief that there are better options out there; he drafts them, and those players bloom. One theory that I have is that it’s merely the fact that someone is in their corner, someone believes in them, and that, in some way, enhances their game.
One other theory that I have, however, is that Yzerman’s genius stems from his history. Yzerman was brought up on a team built on blind trust in Russian players when that certainly wasn’t the norm. His professional hockey career developed on a team that people thought was insane. The Red Wings front office was doing something that no one else at that time was doing.
Yzerman didn’t revolutionize this idea of trusting the underdog. Instead, he’s simply reusing the prospect that the team who developed him held. It’s paying off, but the next big question is: how has no one else caught on?
It’s a question (among others) that I’ll explore further in my subsequent editions to this series as I continue to analyze Yzerman’s track record when it comes to drafting. I’ll also look to expand on these many theories surrounding his alleged genius or perhaps just dumb luck.