When longtime captain and face of the franchise Vincent Lecavalier was bought out in the off-season many fans were very hesitant at how this season would turn out. The buyout came down to an issue of heart versus head as it was logically smart to rid the Lightning of the Lecavalier cap hit but it hurt for fans to see their captain go.
Steve Yzerman made the decision and pulled the trigger removing Lecavalier from the Lightning roster and since then the team has been in a youth movement.
Names such as Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and J.T. Brown were introduced and fans became hesitant because there were going to be ten players on the roster who haven’t played a full season at the NHL level. Although these players have had tremendous success at the minor league levels, the Norfolk Admirals’ historic win streak and eventual Calder Cup win, it’s hard to trust players with little to no NHL inexperience.
It’s paying off.
Ondrej Palat has been playing on the top line along with Tyler Johnson, was named NHL Rookie of the Month for January. He leads all rookies with a 20, and led all rookies with an average ice-time of 17:14. Speaking of Johnson, he is in talks for the Calder by being second in scoring right after Nathan MacKinnon. MacKinnon is leading Johnson 42-35 but Johnson beat him in the head-to-head match up by scoring a hat trick and tying MacKinnon in points at the time.
Young defensemen Mark Barberio and Radko Gudas are stabilizing a defensive corps that has been tumultuous in the past. Both have been contributing on offense, with Barberio scoring his first three NHL goals in the month January. Gudas has been giving the Lightning a physical presence and able to eat up ice time by playing an average of 19 minutes a night.
The youth movement theory is always contested in the NHL because of the unknown or unproven quality and quantity from each player. In the Lightning’s case, yes, their young players make costly turnovers and can be overexposed but they are doing something different.
They are stepping up when it matters and have kept this team in a playoff spot all season long. It’s an impressive feat with a new hero night in and night out especially with Steven Stamkos being injured since November 11.
When Yzerman pulled the trigger on the Lecavalier buyout, he was taking a risk on whether or not the young players AHL success would translate at the NHL level. After the injury to Stamkos, that risk was magnified even more and really put the Lightning to test.
Stamkos is coming back soon and this team will be rested after the Olympic break making for an interesting second half.
The season may not be over but it’s safe to say that Yzerman’s gamble on the young guys has paid off so far.