Where there’s smoke, there’s fire — but before you can have either one you need a spark.
Steve Yzerman’s abrupt decision to step down from his role as Tampa Bay Lightning general manager just days before training camp was a flamethrower igniting a furor of dreams, excitement and speculation in the hockey world.
What you see when you peer into that new fire depends on who you are, where you live and where your allegiances lie.
If you live in Michigan, you’re hoping the red you see dancing in the flames is that same familiar shade which the Red Wings wear.
Love the Lightning? You’re worried this fire will suck all the oxygen out of a franchise that has meticulously planned to destroy everything standing between it and the Stanley Cup.
Washingtonians are peering at the edges to find out which way the wind is blowing, with the hope that it spreads to a new location in the Western Conference.
Metaphors and similes aside, this is a stunning and significant September day in the National Hockey League.
The Bolts have made the Eastern Conference Final three of the past four seasons, and made the 2015 Stanley Cup Final under Yzerman’s watch. They have the rare combination of a roster, salary cap situation, and player development system that are the the envy of the rest of the league.
Tampa Bay is set up to compete for a Cup in 2018-19 and beyond, thanks in large part to the past eight years of hard work by Yzerman and his assistant general manager Julien BriseBois.
They’re working under a man in Jeff Vinik who is viewed as one of (if not the) best owners in the league.
Quite a few other hockey executives would probably love to swap situations.
So why would he step aside from that GM job to become a senior adviser to BriseBois?
For ‘Stevie Y’ it’s all about family.
“I feel this change in role is important for me to allow me to spend more time with my family, and it will also ensure that the Tampa Bay Lightning are managed to the standards that … everyone in the organization has come to expect. We are all delighted that Julien is our next general manager. He is more than ready.”
As Joe Smith of The Athletic and several others who are familiar with Yzerman have pointed out, Yzerman still calls the Detroit-area home. He in essence was commuting between Tampa and Detroit, while logging the travel-heavy schedule that comes with being a GM.
In listening to Yzerman further, it’s clear that years of that constant grind of traveling for hockey while also frequently flying between Michigan and Florida took a toll on him.
“Eight years really has flown by. I’ve done a lot of traveling, and it has worked. I feel I’ve been able to do the job, be where I need to be, as well as be where I need to be for my wife and daughters. At this point now, I have to make a decision again. At some point it’s either sign another contract to remain as the general manager, or not. With some time to reflect: to do the job the way it needs to be done, the way I feel it needs to be done, and ultimately to be with my family as well — it’s becoming difficult to do. Hence the decision.”
What Yzerman also made clear is that this was not a decision he made when we woke up Tuesday morning. He said he started to seriously think about it over the summer, before making up his mind in July. Yzerman, the Lightning and owner Jeff Vinik have spent the months since figuring out the best way to go about executing the change.
While Vinik told The Athletic he was “shocked” by Yzerman’s choice at first, he genuinely seemed seemed happy for his GM choosing to improve work-life balance.
“Steve, we’re so thankful for the whole organization you’ve put together here. I respect your decision. I understand your decision, and frankly you’re making the right decision for yourself and your family. So I applaud your decision, and thank you for continuing to keep a role with us and helping us as our objective is, as Julien said, is to win a Stanley Cup.”
Here’s what we know.
- BriseBois is the new Lightning GM
- Yzerman is now a special adviser
- Yzerman is under contract with Tampa Bay through the 2018-19 season
Beyond those three facts, it’s all a murky mess of hypotheticals. Realistically, there are five potential “outcomes.”
- Yzerman stays in Tampa after 2018-19
- He goes back to Detroit
- He takes the Seattle GM job
- Yzerman goes to a ‘mystery team’
- He takes a year (or more) away from hockey
Reporters in Tampa rightfully asked Yzerman about his status with the Bolts beyond the upcoming season, and whether he was considering going to another organization. Here’s what he and BriseBois said.
Yzerman: “In the role I am in, I am 100 percent committed this year, and we are going to do everything we can to win and have as successful a season as possible. Beyond this year, I don’t have an answer for you.”
BriseBois: “Steve and I have discussed this. He wants to try it out for the year. I would love for him to stay beyond one season. At the end of the year, we’ll sit down and if he enjoyed his new role, then obviously I would be more than happy if he were to stay on board with us.”
Both men seem to agree this will be a one year ‘test’ where Yzerman can dip his toe into the waters of a different, less travel-intensive front office role. At the end of the season, they’ll talk about it and see whether it’s the right fit or not.
That makes sense, but this wait-and-see approach also doesn’t calm the heated speculation regarding two cities in particular: Detroit and Seattle.
The reason behind the Detroit buzz is obvious.Embed from Getty Images
‘The Captain’ spent his entire 22-year playing career with the Red Wings. The Hall of Famer won three Stanley Cups as a player, and leapt straight into the management ranks with the Winged Wheel after his retirement in 2006.
Yzerman won another cup while in the Wings’ front office, serving under Detroit’s current GM Ken Holland (and working with current Dallas GM Jim Nill).
Combine that history with the aforementioned fact that he wants to spend more time with his family still in the area, and Detroit starts to look like the logical option.
However: Holland signed a two-year contract extension with the Red Wings in April of 2018. So unless Detroit was OK with paying both Holland and Yzerman to be the GM, that swap seems unlikely.
But there is the possibility that Holland brings Yzerman on in another front office role.
As Helene St. James of the Detroit Free-Press notes, Holland recently sounded open to adding to his front office following years of trusted advisers leaving town.
“I’m open to anything,” Holland said [in April]. “There was a period of time Jimmy Devellano lived in Detroit, he doesn’t any more. I had Jim Nill here. Steve (Yzerman) retired and we brought him on board. Scotty Bowman was a consultant. I had more voices and we had a lot of success. We won the Cup in ’08 and lost in the final in ’09. You lose people. That’s the reality when you have success, people get opportunities elsewhere. … Could we use another person that has that experience to join us? It’s something I’m considering.”
For what it’s worth, St. James said the owner of the Red Wings had no comment on Yzerman’s decision, citing NHL rules and past policy of not speaking about people who are under contract with other organizations.
One thing to keep in mind is that, as Craig Custance pointed out, Yzerman has a huge level of respect for Holland. It’s unlikely he would want to go in and up-end his mentor in the middle of a rebuild. It’s also a long-term project that’s really just getting started, and due to the Wings’ salary cap & contract situation it won’t be getting better for a few years.
The other factor is Yzerman’s legacy in Detroit.Embed from Getty Images
He’s beloved there for everything he’s done. Would he want to go back to deal with the sky-high pressure to win more Stanley Cups? If he returned to the Motor City and was successful, then who knows. Maybe they name the city after him. But if it didn’t work out, would it impact how people there view Yzerman? Is that a risk he wants to take? Only he knows the answer to those questions.
Purely hypothetical concerns aside, the pile of evidence lends some credibility to the buzz surrounding a Detroit return.
But it’s far from the only possibility at play, particularly when looking at Yzerman’s connections.
That’s where Seattle would theoretically come in.
Yzerman and NHL Seattle President & CEO Tod Leiweke worked together in Tampa for several years. They arrived within two months of each-other, and helped build the Lightning from laughing stock to Stanley Cup Finalist.
Then you look at Jerry Bruckheimer, a key member of the Seattle Hockey Partners. The movie & TV producer was born and raised in Detroit. He’s a lifelong hockey fan who grew up watching the Red Wings.
Further adding to the Seattle speculation? These comments from Dave Tippett to Sports Illustrated on the search for the (potential) franchise’s first GM.
“We’re looking at next spring. I think we’ll hone in on a GM and see how that goes. We might have to wait until after the draft next year. In Vegas’s case, George McPhee wasn’t working so they hired him in June. We’ve got a lot of planning to do before then, solidifying the timeline of when we’re going to start up.”
That “after the draft next year” part just-so-happens to line up with the time frame of Yzerman’s contract expiring. Assuming the NHL approves Seattle expansion, you have to imagine Leiweke & co. try to make the sales pitch to Yzerman.
Seattle offers a sense of familiarity, but also the much-desired clean slate. No bad contracts, no salary cap crunch, and the chance to somewhat hand-pick the players you start your franchise with. That’s a rare combination many GMs would love to have.
If the Seattle Hockey Partners landed Yzerman, people should be through the roof thrilled. The architect of Washington state’s hockey team would be the man who’s viewed arguably as the best GM in the sport.
But remember: Yzerman found the years of constant travel and frequent 2-and-a-half hour flights between Michigan to Florida taxing. He might have a hard time going back to the same GM role, and taking the job in a city that’s an even longer haul (4.5-5 hour flight) from his Detroit home and family.
Theoretically any number of teams could or will be interested in bringing Yzerman on, but they’d face similar challenges. Without knowing the contact situations of every single front office, it’s even tougher to try to project that.
Maybe he does the year as an adviser, realizes it’s not for him or gets that hunger to become a GM again. Yzerman could also plausibly go the Tippett or Mike Babcock route of taking time away from hockey, and then hand-picking a landing spot to get back in the game.
There’s still that very real possibility that he loves his new role and the flexibility it affords him, so he stays put long-term.
Like I said: it’s all speculation at this point. Ironically, that’s exactly what Yzerman said he wanted to avoid by announcing this move when he did.
“Why two days before training camp? We felt it was important to let everyone know what we were doing, end any potential speculation. We have a plan here. We’ve come up with a plan, we like our plan, and let’s put that in place and not wait any further.”
Unfortunately, Steve, that’s exactly what hockey fans will be doing: Waiting around that warm, comforting fire of endless possibilities until your next move is revealed.
If you have any questions or feedback: leave a comment, send me an email at the address on the bottom of the page or hit me up on Twitter (@ScottMalone91).