What's next for Yzerman, Lightning?
In the end, it wasn't very shocking that Guy Boucher found himself out of work just a few hours after his struggling Tampa Bay Lightning laid another egg in Ottawa and just a few hours before the Bolts were to take on Southeast Division foe Winnipeg Sunday night in the Canadian city.
Certainly, the warning signs have been plentiful along the road to this decision.
Maybe more of a surprise was that it took this long for general manager Steve Yzerman to pull the pin on the emotional, fiery coach. And if the dismissing of Boucher -- the second coaching change of this lockout shortened season after Buffalo let Lindy Ruff go last month -- was more inevitable than anything else, what remains as another potential surprise is what is next for Yzerman and the Lightning.
The former Hall of Fame player, now in his third season as Lightning GM, told reporters in Winnipeg Sunday afternoon that he knew after the Lightning gave up four first-period goals Saturday against Ottawa en route to a second straight listless loss that the decision had to be made.
The loss to the Sens was more of the same -- long lapses in play, poor defense, questionable goaltending and an inability to coax victories or even points out of close games.
The team's 2-9-1 record in one-goal outings has them tied for dead last in the NHL in winning percentage in one-goal games at a paltry .167.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, by comparison, lead the NHL with a 9-1-0 record in one-goal games. It is a reflection of the significant chasm that exists between those teams that can rightfully call themselves contenders and those that are still searching for an identity -- some solid ground on which to build.
If the Lightning weren't exactly considered a Cup contender at the start of the lockout-shortened season, they were certainly considered by many to be a viable contender to win the Southeast Division crown.
And when they began the season 6-1-0, it wasn't hard to imagine that the Lightning were headed back onto the arc that saw them advance to the Eastern Conference finals in 2011.
We happened to be in Tampa in the fall of 2010 when Yzerman was presiding over his first training camp as the new Lightning boss. He had brought in Boucher as his first coaching hire, the eloquent Montreal native being the hot coaching ticket that summer given his meteoric rise through the coaching ranks from major junior to the American Hockey League level.
A veteran Lightning player gushed about Boucher's structure and order, his attention to detail. And when the Lightning squeaked past Pittsburgh (who were without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) in seven games in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, then swept the powerful Washington Capitals, it was hard not to likewise gush about the choices Yzerman made and the work done by Boucher.
Boucher's Lightning fell to eventual Cup champion Boston in seven games in the conference final, the series finale an epic 1-0 battle that saw both Tim Thomas and Lightning netminder Dwayne Roloson deliver sterling performances.
But this team, the one that fell to 7-16-1 in their past 24 games and a miserable 5-10-0 on the road, bears little resemblance to that 2011 team.
Although Yzerman said Sunday he hopes his players will continue to work towards a playoff berth, the reality is that even though only five points separates the 14th-place Lightning and eighth place in the conference, the distance seems far, far greater given their level of play.
The Lightning for the second year in a row struggle to move the puck out of their own zone and, as a direct result, struggle to keep the puck out of their net, ranking 24th in goals allowed at 3.03 per game. Last season, they were dead last in the league in goals allowed per game.
Certainly some if not a great deal of that falls to Boucher, who seemed unable to coax better team defense out of his squad.
But a coach can only coach the pieces set before him.
During January's brief training camp, Boucher was exuberant at the work Yzerman did in the offseason addressing the team's critical goaltending and defensive needs.
The results, needless to say, have been wildly underwhelming.
Lindback's 2.88 goals-against average ranks 38th in the NHL, and his .903 save percentage ranks 34th. His numbers would be even less tepid, but he managed to turn in a series of quality starts before being injured.
Carle's 11 points have him tied for 47th in the NHL.
There are, of course, bright spots, starting with former Hart Trophy nominee Steven Stamkos, who ranks third in points and leads the NHL with 21 goals. Rookie Cory Conacher leads all first-year players with 22 points. Martin St. Louis continues to defy Father Time as he is a point behind Stamkos, remains a dominant force offensively and is the heart and soul of the Lightning.
But time will at some point run out for St. Louis, who will turn 38 in June.
And so the question becomes: What now for the Lightning?
"I'm not looking to drag things out," Yzerman told reporters Sunday. He said he has a plan he'd like to put into place, "and I hope to accomplish that as soon as possible."
The dilemma for Yzerman is whether he goes once more to the untested route and promotes stellar minor pro coach Jon Cooper. Like Boucher, Cooper has seen his stock skyrocket in the past couple of years. He led the Lightning's AHL affiliate on an unprecedented winning streak last season en route to a Calder Cup championship, and the team is once again one of the top squads in the AHL.
But GMs, like coaches and players, only get so many kicks at the can.
Does logic, if not a sense of self-preservation, lead Yzerman down a more traditional route in hiring someone with NHL head coaching experience or at the very least someone with NHL coaching experience of some kind? Ruff, for instance, was on Yzerman's coaching staff at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver when Canada won a gold medal and is now the most obvious choice for any team looking to upgrade its coaching.
There is bound to be some coaching movement in the offseason and one wonders if Yzerman will be keeping an eye on what happens in Columbus, where Todd Richards has revived his reputation by guiding the lowly Blue Jackets into playoff contention under a new management team.
If the San Jose Sharks do not make the playoffs or are dispatched early once again (they were beaten in five games in the first round by St. Louis last spring), will Todd McLellan be looking for work? McLellan was an assistant in Detroit where Yzerman remains an iconic figure and coached the forwards in Yzerman's final seasons as a player.
Yzerman would not address specifically whether he's looking for someone with NHL experience or not, but these are the kinds of challenges now facing one of the greatest players ever as he moves to make a second coaching decision in less than three years.
These kinds of organizational hiccups are not unprecedented -- not that it makes the decision any easier for Yzerman.
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli hired and then quickly had to fire his first coach, Dave Lewis, and went on to win a Cup while earning a reputation as one of the top GMs in the league.
One of Yzerman's peers, Joe Nieuwendyk, is on his second coach in Dallas in previously untested Glen Gulutzan and has yet to make the playoffs, meaning the pressure is on both coach and GM in Dallas.
If Boucher found the learning curve in the NHL to be a difficult thing to master, it is fair to say that Yzerman likewise is working his way up that curve as well.
His next coaching call will say much about both his future and the future of the Lightning, a future that looks dramatically different today in Winnipeg than it did two springs ago in Boston.
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