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Yzerman has work cut out for him in Tampa Add to ...

It was interesting to learn today from Red Wings ownership that Steve Yzerman came close to leaving for Minnesota a year ago, back when Doug Risebrough was out of that job and Chuck Fletcher eventually brought in.

But the truth is that Yzerman has been thinking and dreaming about becoming a GM for years and years -- and that once Jeff Vinik showed he would spare no cost to bring him aboard, that was proof enough now was the time to make the leap. Yzerman didn't want out of Detroit because, as he intimated last night, he loved it and was beloved there.

What he needed was a push to make that tough decision, and Vinik's offer gave him that.

It's going to be fascinating just what he does in Tampa Bay, where the rebuild is further behind than some would have you believe.

This is a franchise that's been decimated by the horrible decision making there over the two-year reign of error by OK Hockey, a non-traditional market that was once seen as one of the league's strongest expansion territories that's become one of its most fragile.

I've put this together a few times in the past, but here's a look at the Lightning's attendance over the past 10 years (keeping in mind that this team won a title in 2004):

Officially, the figure for this past season was about 15,500 fans per game, but that's with steep discounting and thousands of freebies thrown in, desperate moves by the desperate group that was in charge up until a few months ago. The fact is that the Lightning fan base that had grown so large following the team's championship had thrown in the towel given the ownership sideshow.

Adding Vinik, and now Yzerman, are both steps in the right direction in terms of re-establishing credibility.

What they'll need more than anything, however, is a winning team, something Tampa Bay hasn't come close to the past three seasons. The Lightning also have only five forwards signed and $40-million committed against the cap, meaning Yzerman will be tackling new territory in cap management almost from the get-go.

And most importantly, Mr. Stamkos, he of the 51-goal season at age 20, needs a new contract in the next 13 months.

Yzerman seems to understand the challenges ahead, and he sounds positively general manager-like already talking about how close his team is to contending (despite not really being close at all this past season).

"Last year's team finished I think six points out of a playoff spot," Yzerman said. "The Philadelphia Flyers made the playoffs on the last night of the season in a shootout and now they're in the Stanley Cup finals. On the other hand, the Lightning finished six points out of having the third pick in the draft as well. There's not a huge difference between making the playoffs and having success and not making them -- parity is a word you'll hear regularly used. The league is a lot closer. Teams have an opportunity."

The reality is that this is a team that didn't do much well this season. They were the fifth-lowest scoring team in the East, allowed more goals than all but the Oilers, Islanders and Leafs, and have downright silly contracts on the books for three or four of their locked-in players.

One NHL executive said of the Lightning that they have only a handful of players Yzerman can use, and that's not far from the truth. The market, the roster -- all things Tampa Bay are close to ground zero given what's gone on there.

In the face of that, Yzerman said yesterday he wants to build a perennially dominant team, something that we rarely see these days. This is also his first stop as GM, so there'll probably be some learning on the job.

"There's no secret recipe here, we're not going to whip out anything," Yzerman said. "It's very methodical and it's going to be handling things the right way, doing it the right way, bringing in people with passion for hockey. Players with passion and making them accountable."

I think he's got his work cut out for him, and that this team -- even if Lecavalier stays -- has miles to go before it can contend for anything. He needs a goaltender, he needs a better defence core to help Hedman become a dominant top pairing player, and he can't really keep all of his big stars up front given their timeline and needs elsewhere.

Yzerman's goal should be to make way for Stamkos and Hedman and build around them, and that's going to take time. Probably years.

And Step 1 starts at the NHL draft combine this week in Toronto.

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