By Jim Bleyer
The sudden departure of Tampa Bay Lightning’s General Manager Steve Yzerman only three weeks before the National Hockey League’s 2018-19 season was the subject of much speculation with no definitive answer.
At the time, observers focused on possible Yzerman health problems or his wearying of the frequent commute to Detroit where his family lives. Both theories are plausible but no solid evidence to buttress either claim has surfaced since his resignation as GM last September.
But there is an even more logical scenario as to why Yzerman, architect of a team that this season tied the all-time record for wins, decided to trim down his role with the Lightning: disagreement with owner Jeff Vinik over the retention of Coach Jon Cooper.
To many local hockey aficionados, including Tampa Bay Beat, Cooper’s resumé was fraught with playoff failure. Last year, with a superior lineup, Cooper was clearly outcoached as the Lightning were eliminated by the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference finals.
Cooper was coaching the Lightning’s minor league affiliate when Yzerman tapped him to lead the big club in March, 2013. Following five seasons of underachievement, Yzerman surely pinpointed the problem.
The firing of a coach with a favorable image in spite of his woeful postseason resumé, usually requires an owner to sign off on such a move. Vinik, ultra-sensitive to public perception, would have vetoed the idea instead of deferring to a highly esteemed hockey executive.
Yzerman’s imprint on the ice and in the front office blazed a trail of excellence. When he arrived, the Lightning were scraping the bottom of the league. Now Tampa unquestionably possesses the most potent lineup in the NHL but with an albatross of a coach who embarrassed the franchise with a first round loss to the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets.
Sportscasters and hockey writers around the country are using the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning as a punchline for jokes that will morph into comedy club fodder for years to come. Yzerman may not have predicted the extent of the Lightning’s failure but he obviously had no faith in this season’s outcome and did not want his name attached to it.
Yzerman was an effective and diligent general manager. He consummated shrewd trades to shore up weaknesses; he negotiated contracts to keep key players in the salary cap era. The Hall of Famer was well served by apprenticeships in the Detroit Red Wings front office and Team Canada.
Despite Tampa’s 62 wins and never losing more than two games in a row, they were swept in four games by the last-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets. It will forever be the defining professional sports collapse but without Yzerman’s fingerprints at the crime scene.
With one more year remaining on his contract, Yzerman, a gentleman, fulfilled his contract by acting in an “advisory capacity.”
Vinik, who is all about projecting a positive image at any cost, managed to obfuscate the disagreement and appear magnanimous. He virtually owns the area’s only daily paper who has never printed anything negative about Vinik, never reported his indiscretions, or uncovered payoffs
to local officials and special interest groups to support his investments.
Now Vinik is paying the price. He lost a top tier general manager. He lost millions of dollars when his team got knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. For the first time in his ten-year tenure, he has a restless, disenchanted fan base.
Vinik, with the aid of the Tampa Bay Times, can use deceit and misdirection to cover up his ignominious gaffe or he can do what he should have done 11 months ago: fire Cooper.