October 12, 2010

Guy Boucher has been coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning for 121 days in a row. Personally, I think we ought to chip in and buy him a watch.

Simon Gagne is now in his 83rd day as a Lightning forward. When Cal Ripken hears about such a streak, he will applaud.

Dan Ellis, the goaltender who has fans' hearts all a-twitter, has now hit 100 straight days of employment. Any day now, you may refer to him as "the Rock."

And so the insanity has ended, and the hopelessness that went along with it. These days the Lightning is more restrained and less reactionary. These days the front office no longer looks like a bunch of guys playing fantasy hockey.

The cowboys are gone.

The chaos, too.

And with those exits, things around the Lightning seem to make sense.

There for a while, the Lightning had the sound of three auctioneers trying to sell the same item. A player would come in - or a coach - and owners would nod and talk about how he was the perfect fit. And a few days later, that player would be shuffled elsewhere because, after all, it made perfect sense.

Ex-owners Oren Koules (the one with the money) and Len Barrie (not so much money) had players coming in and out of the locker room like a team changing shifts. Barry Melrose left the TV booth to coach, and he was fired so fast, he was back after the next commercial break. Defenseman Matt Carle was out of here before his videos were due back at Netflix. And on and on.

Coaches were looking over their shoulders to be sure their assistants hadn't been fired underneath them, players were looking to make sure they hadn't been jettisoned, and fans, well, the fans were not looking at all.

No one took time to see how things worked out. No one took time to breathe. No one took time to think. It was like trying to build a house by tossing bricks into an empty lot and hoping they landed in the right order.

Perhaps that is why new chess master Steve Yzerman seems to make such sense. So far he does not seem prone to willy or to nilly. He seems patient. He seems planned.

And if you have paid attention to sports in this market, he seems to have possibilities.

When it comes to the talent procurers around here, smart and steady have always been the best options. That's been true in Tampa Bay, and it's been pretty much true everywhere else.

Remember the days of Rick Dudley? Nowthatguy was ready to deal. If the phone was ringing, Duds was answering. It didn't matter if the proposal was someone else's C player for his C player, Dudley liked making deals.

Mind you, Dudley made some fine moves while he was GM here, and he has rarely gotten his due for bringing in many of the pieces that were here for the 2004 Stanley Cup. For the most part, Dudley is remembered as the guy who was ready to trade Vinny Lecavalier. Everyone else, too.

Then he was replaced by Jay Feaster, whose best move was this:

He ... slowed ... everything ... down.

"We have all the ingredients for a great cake," said Feaster. "Let's let it bake."

Suddenly, the Lightning was back to one step at a time, and players such as Marty St. Louis and Brad Richards and Lecavalier blossomed, and the winning became common, and before you knew it, the players were passing something large and shiny around the ice.

It was the same with the Bucs, if you remember. For years the Bucs had revolving doors to their huddles. Players were claimed on waivers on Tuesday, and they started on Sunday, and they were released on Monday.

Then came general manager Rich McKay, who looked like a positively dreadful hire in the beginning. But in McKay's first draft, he traded back and took Warren Sapp and then traded up and took Derrick Brooks, and the franchise had been turned around. Things really became stable the next year when Tony Dungy came in as coach. After that, it was about following the blueprint and developing the players.

"You have to have a plan," McKay used to say. "It doesn't have to be the best plan, but if it's a plan, you have a chance."

When the Bucs won the Super Bowl, the plan looked pretty good.

The Rays were no different. In their early years, they were going to develop young players one year, then they were going to hire the Hit Show the next year, then they were going to go young again the year after that.

Once Stuart Sternberg bought the team, however, the Rays became consistent throughout their organization. Executive vice president Andrew Friedman traded for every arm he could find, and suddenly players were coming out of the minor leagues ready to play. Now the Rays have won two of the last three American League East titles.

By now it ought to be obvious. Three franchises, and at one time you could argue that each of them was the worst organization in pro sports. Three blueprints, all stressing smart, well-thought out plans to get to the top. Three successes.

Perhaps that is why it has been gratifying to see Yzerman take proper, patient steps with his Lightning. We've seen this work before. There is no reason to think it will not work again.

As the Lightning prepares to open its latest season tonight, that's worth keeping in mind. Sure, you have three questions in mind: How improved will it be? Probably not improved enough. How far can it go in the playoffs? Probably not far enough. How good will the goaltending be? Probably not special enough. As Yzerman has said, a team doesn't get better all at once.

Still, it is hard not to be impressed with the new guys in charge. With the old guys, you were always nervous as to what they might be thinking. With Yzerman and owner Jeff Vinik, at least you can be reasonably sure they are thinking.

With Yzerman, a wiser man, the Lightning will get better.

On the far side of chaos, the smart teams usually do.