Playoff notes, Yzerman's mission (cont.)
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman gets a lot of criticism for the ownership mess that has been the Phoenix Coyotes these past few years, and much of it is deserved, but in the credit where credit is due department, he's done the job in Tampa Bay.
First off, the commissioner found an owner for the Lightning. Not just any owner -- and certainly not a "bunch of cowboys " as former head coach John Tortorella successfully tagged the previous group. In Jeff Vinik, Bettman appears to have brought a creditable owner with real money to the NHL Board of Governors' table. We use the word "appears" not because we don't believe in Vinik or his wealth; it's just that when it comes to ownership issues in the NHL, well, it's always best to be cautious until things play themselves out.
But giving Vinik the benefit of the doubt created by the likes of NHL owners who are either in jail, going to jail, or should be in jail, he is the kind that appears willing to bring stability and a sense of business purpose to a franchise that desperately needs it.
It's fair to assume (because these things always go unspoken) that Bettman steered Vinik to Steve Yzerman as Tampa Bay's new general manager. That's because Vinik, who knows next to nothing regarding the inner workings of a sports franchise, had intended to hire a CEO to run his newly acquired business and then let the CEO hire a GM. Well, he still hasn't found that CEO, but someone advised him to go out and get the best new face on the GM want-to-be scene.
Despite being a former legendary Detroit Red Wings captain and celebrated player, as well as a GM-in-training with one of the best-run franchises in the league, Yzerman has no real track record. Sure, he had success at the World Championships and in putting together Canada's 2010 gold medal-winning Olympic team, and that counts for something, But it's an entirely different operation when you have most of the world's best hockey talent at your disposal and need only to fit the great pieces into a cohesive team. It's something else again to work against 29 other GMs with a talent pool made up of draft gambles, free agents of widely varying quality, and a salary cap.
To be sure, Yzerman was an in-demand up-and-comer. Some team would surely have taken him this offseason, but someone had to put the two together. Vinik wasn't well informed enough to make this happen all by himself. Yzerman is smart enough to know that he wasn't going to go to just any franchise. It had to be one that he had reason to suspect he could be successful with during his first time out. Tampa Bay didn't qualify until Vinik came on the scene, and even then there was reason for doubt on both sides.
Enter Bettman and a match that should work for all concerned.
Vinik gets a rookie, but one who has rookie of the year potential. Yzerman gets a team with some assets already in place -- Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and, if he's in the mood, Vincent Lecavalier -- but he also gets the much needed free hand to do things his own way.
Tampa Bay is a franchise in need of change. Vinik went on record as saying that Yzerman would answer only to him and not be encumbered by whoever is named CEO. That's important for any GM, especially a first-timer who is bound to make mistakes and needs to be able to defend his actions to the owner and not someone in the front office who might, in a power struggle, benefit from the GM's gaffes. That was pretty close to the norm in the previous Tampa setup, as there were turf wars throughout the operation that pretty much led to the demise of a team that won the Stanley Cup in 2004 and appeared en route to being a model for success in Bettman's oft-criticized "southern strategy."
Yzerman needs to find a coach. He needs to meet with scouts and form a plan on how to play with the sixth pick in the upcoming draft. He needs to analyze a roster that has an almost equal blend of potential and problems, and he needs to put his stamp on a front office that likely will see more than a few changes over time. Oh, and he also has to win back a fan base that owes no allegiance to Steve Yzerman the hockey player or even the Steve Yzerman who was once the golden child in Detroit and seeming heir-apparent to head that operation.
He's out on his own now, but I for one wouldn't bet against him. Yzerman the player would do whatever was necessary to win, and Yzerman in his post-playing career didn't just say that he wanted to be a GM. He went to finishing school in and outside the Detroit organization in a committed effort to make it happen. Nobody is a sure thing in their chosen field, but when you look at Yzerman's pedigree, his work habits, his commitment to winning, and his commitment to being the best he can be at anything he tries, it's hard to bet against his chances for success.
This is a good move for Tampa and, arguably, a great move for Vinik and the NHL. The commissioner won't say a word about how it all came about, but he should at least take a silent bow. Tampa Bay is a franchise worth saving and there are now people in place who appear to have both the means and the ways to make it happen.