Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman praised his coach and players Thursday for a challenging year despite an early playoff exit.
Bottom line: The Lightning met expectations.
“Overall, I think this is a very good season. I think everybody,our players, our coaches, management, owners and fan base, everybody is disappointed with how the first round went,” Yzerman told reporters. “Overall, looking at it we’re very encouraged by the season we had. We really liked the group that we had, the character in the room, the way they competed all year and played a really exciting brand of hockey.
“Games 3 and 4 in Montreal we’re happy with how we played. We weren’t happy the way we played in Games 1 and 2 and dug ourselves in a hole and we couldn’t get out of it. Overall, it was a positive season for us, and I”m excited for this group moving forward.”
Yzerman hopes that this season was the first step getting the organization back on track to consistently make the playoffs.
“I hope so. The reality is let’s look back five years and see if it was the first step, and hopefully it wasn’t just a blip. With the nucleus that we have, our expectation is let’s compete for a playoff spot,” Yzerman said. “And it’s hard to make it. We were able to finish second in the division in the regular season, but the playoffs are still a difficult thing to make. Just because we made it this year, it’s not a given that we’re in automatically next year.
“I think, albeit a brief experience in the playoffs, everybody learns a lot from it. For Coop, his first go-round in the NHL playoffs, for a lot of our players we go through these things. We got swept, we learn from it. We played poorly at home in the first two games, we learn from that. It will make us better going forward. We’ll be better prepared for the future.”
The coach earned praise for his boss, who described Cooper as a “level-headed” and “bright guy.”
“We make decisions along the way, and you have the luxury to look back after and say. ‘I’m glad I did that whether it worked out or not,’ or ‘it was the right thing to do,’ or ‘I wish I would have done this.’ He’ll learn from everything, but I think he did a great job. I like the way this team play. I like the way his teams play from watching Norfolk and Syracuse and the Tampa Bay Lightning. I think we got a real good coach here whose only going to get better though experience.
“The NHL, it’s a different from the junior hockey league or the American Hockey League. They’re all different. The way the game is payed, the standards of officiating, the things where you wanna play. You’re going to have to adapt. The year was good, and he’ll only get better. He’s a tremendous, young coach.”
The rookies and young team met expectations, not necessarily overachieving. The organization’s own goal was to make the playoffs, not to win the Stanley Cup given where this team was last year and the dozen or so rookies who would make appearances in the lineup.
“Our hope at the beginning of the year was to compete for a playoff spot. We were able to do that,” Yzerman said. “In that sense, we competed for a playoff spot, we met our expectation. We didn’t really know what to expect from our younger players that came in and played in Syracuse a year ago. We felt that for most of them, after two and a half to three years of hockey in the American league, we’d move them into the NHL. They weren’t going to benefit. We had hoped it would go well, and for some of them they played extremely well. A couple others it was a grind getting, becoming, establishing themselves as regulars in the lineup.
“All-in-all, it was positive we were able to move some of our younger players in. Our veterans ,I thought really played extremely well throughout the course of the season. They were really rejuvenated. We’re very encouraged by that. It wasn’t just all these kids. Our veterans guys came and played very well.”
One NHL veteran new to the team, Ryan Callahan, has a fan in Yzerman, who will target to sign the pending unrestricted free agent before he hits the market.
“I really would like to get him signed. I really like the way he plays the game,” Yzerman said. “He’s a great complement, his style of play to the group of players that we have. You watch him in these four playoff games, and the longer this would had gone on, the even more effective he would become. The tenacity he plays with, the character, those are all important things. He does the things that help you win games. I said that when we made the trade that we’re going to do with the intention or hope to resign him, and we’re going to try to do that.”
Fans want to know what the organization thinks it needs to do to improve next season, and Yzerman declined to get into details because he hasn’t performed the post-mortum with the coaching staff yet. You’d have to think that teaching the team to be able to adjust to a neutral zone trap, how to rough it up in between the whistles, make sure each player has their man and how to get in the face of a goaltender are all on the syllabus for the fall.
“I think it’s best that I sit down with Coop,” Yzerman said. “Our plan is next week is to sit down and kind of go over our team. Look at where we were statically throughout the season, our goals against, goals for, power play, penalty killing–kind of go over everything and decide what we really need to do. I have some thoughts, I prefer to keep those to myself for the time being. We do have to improve in certain areas. Over the course of time, change our team a little bit. I prefer not to say that at this time.”
The playoffs are a little tough to judge considering the team only played four games, Yzerman said.
“I guess it’s fair to say that after the four games, there’s some questions that I had that I gotta sit here and take some time now to say, you know, ‘I have my answer, I know what I want to do.'” Yzerman said. “Yes, It’s made me rethink a couple of things or Jon and I gotta to talk about what we need to address or improve upon.”
The changes would not be drastic, he said, which would be difficult to do given the trade environment and salary cap restrictions.
“I don’t see any reason to do a drastic overhaul, but we gotta get better,” he said.
Prospect Jonathan Drouin is expected to compete for a spot in training camp next season. Drouin has another year of junior eligibility, but it might not make sense to spend more time there.
“If he’s not going to get ice time, I don’t want to sit him in the stands as a young player,” Yzerman said. “Now having said that, I’m not sure what he’s going to benefit from going back to another year of junior, but we’ll worry about that in the fall. He’s a very exciting young player, really competitive, really skilled.”
Goaltending prospect Andrei Vasilevski is expected to compete in the World Championships this spring and expected to be resigned and be brought over to compete in the ECHL or AHL, he said. His status won’t affect decisions on restricted free agent goaltender Anders Lindback, who performed well in a pinch during the final month of the season and into the first round against Montreal despite his team’s lack of production and defense.
The Bolts had plenty of distractions that could serve as an excuse for their failings, but handled them well for a young team, whether it was Martin St. Louis’s trade demand, Steve Stamkos’s injury and a little when Ben Bishop was injury.
“They’re all experiences, and ultimately our goal is to win at some point here. You look back and everything you went through, it’s never just a smooth sailing,” Yzerman said. “Things are unforeseen, happen and go wrong, and you gotta learn to adapt and be ready for anything. Depth is extremely important at all positions cause you’re going to have to battle through injuries at some point, suspensions, what not.
“You look at what’s going on around the league and there are guys suspended, guys injured. In Anaheim, guys are playing without Getzlaf. It’s hard to get there. The more your’re in these situations, the better you become, the more mature, you become battle- hardened, I guess is an expression maybe you can use. This group, there are a lot of things that can happen. Whether it be injury, trades and things like that. But they were a resilient group and the depth of the team is a reason we were able to make the playoffs.”
Who knows if Ryan Malone’s arrest affected anything, but they did manage to win the game after his arrest, the 1-0 shootout victory over the Washington Capitals in the season finale. You could argue the team missed Malone’s size and grit in the playoffs. A player like B.J. Crombeen would be the player to step up in Malone’s place but never happened. For a tough guy, Crombeen was incredibly soft in the playoffs.
Toughness isn’t something left to the fighters. Power forwards need to be able to be nasty along with the defensemen. Stamkos can through a punch here and there and get in your face like Sidney Crosby chooses to do so. Other than Valtteri Filppula and Nikita Kucherov, the rest of the team needs a nasty edge to them. (I just don’t see Filppula and Kucherov needing to get involved in scrums because you do need some finesse to balance it out.) Still, Yzerman will look at opportunities to toughen up the team. It’s why he ditched his one-time captain for Ryan Callahan.
“I think that’s an area that we could, I don’t know if improve upon, but address,” Yzerman told reporters.
(For the video impaired, Yzerman’s comments above were transcribed from the Lightning’s footage of his full media availability.)