Steve Yzerman may be a rookie general manager but his Tampa Bay Lightning are one of the most improved teams in the NHL this season because he has not run into any surprises in his first crack at the big chair.
The reason for that, Yzerman readily admits, is that when his playing career as a Detroit Red Wings legend ended, he was lucky enough to spend four years in the best finishing school in the GM business, the front office of the Red Wings. The surprises came in Yzerman's first years of observing how Red Wings vice-president Jim Devellano, GM Ken Holland and his key aides, Jim Nill and Ryan Martin, went about running the team. By the time he landed his first GM job last summer, Yzerman was ready to tackle an organization like the Lightning, which had missed the NHL playoffs for three consecutive seasons.
"When I retired as a player, I thought I had a great understanding of what a general manager needs to do," said Yzerman, 45. "Just sitting there for four years watching Kenny go about his job, all the situations and how he handled them, I went to university.
"I had four years to see how those decisions panned out. I don't know how I could get a better education than that."
Which is why, with the Lightning coming into their game Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs with a 13-8-3 record, good enough for fifth place in the Eastern Conference before Monday's games, Yzerman can say about his new job, "I don't know that I would describe anything as a major surprise."
The cynics can say Yzerman was also lucky in his first job. He was hired by a new owner, Jeff Vinik, who is well-financed, unlike the previous regime, and the team hung on to its star draft picks from 2009 (defenceman Victor Hedman) and 2008 (forward Steven Stamkos), who are the linchpins on the current team.
But Yzerman was also able to convince key veterans Martin St. Louis, who signed a new contract in the summer, and Vincent Lecavalier to buy into his program. He also hired a bright young coach in Guy Boucher and greatly improved the supporting cast. Yzerman traded for forward Simon Gagné, who has been injured most of the season but will be an important part of the team, and sharpened the defensive game with the additions of defencemen Brett Clark, Pavel Kubina and Randy Jones, plus goaltender Dan Ellis.
It seems a long time ago now when Yzerman would sit down with Holland and, like your average caller to the sports-talk radio stations, rattle off a list of trade suggestions and free agents they should sign.
"I'd throw these ideas out there and very politely Kenny would explain why it was difficult to do that or you can't do that because of the [salary cap]" Yzerman said. "A lot of it is just reality. Teams are not going to hand over their best players."
The most important lesson he learned in those four years, and not just from Holland, Yzerman said, "is patience."
"I learned from Kenny, and all the other managers in the league, don't be in a hurry to improve your team overnight. It takes time. You have to allow your young players to develop."
He also learned GMs have a lot more duties than making trades and signing free agents. They also have to sell their game, whether it is in their own community or even an entire country that is supposed to be hooked on the game.
Yzerman was in Toronto a day ahead of his hockey team on Monday to take part in a Royal Bank of Canada campaign to distribute $1-million in grants annually across Canada to create interest in hockey at the grassroots level. Yzerman helped announce a $25,000 grant in Toronto's Thorncliffe district for programs that encourage new Canadians aged 6 to 18 to learn to play hockey.
"Thinking back to when I was the age of 10, the country has changed dramatically," Yzerman said. "There's an entirely new demographic and we trying to reach out to people who aren't traditionally from a hockey background."