When we think about legends in hockey, and in sports in general, our thoughts are always drawn to the players. The athletes who gave us those moments, those bursts of ecstasy that sculpted our fandom and understanding of the games we hold so dearly in our hearts. However, when we talk about greatness is sports, we seldom talk about those people behind the scenes. The men who build the teams, who coach the athletes, who find and develop the players into the stars that define a generation. In this series, I will be shining the light on five geniuses currently working in hockey. These five individuals have their own reasons for making this list and we will venture down each of their paths.
We begin in Sarnia, Ontario, with the man that Glenn Healy dubbed the “Little Ball of Hate.” Pat Verbeek spent two years playing with OHL’s Sudbury Wolves before he finally became a mainstay in the NHL, a role he would occupy for 20 years with five different NHL clubs. He spent 13 of those years playing with the New Jersey Devils and Hartford Whalers and racked up 1,063 points in 1,424 games over his career, as well as a stunning 2,905 penalty minutes. However, what once was an aggressive, hard-nosed, skillful winger is now an organization-transcending executive who has very quietly helped turn a once dormant team into a Stanley Cup finalist.
Aside from two very strong seasons between 2002-2004, one of which ended with the Stanley Cup coming to Tampa Bay for the first and only time as of today, the Bolts have largely lived in the doldrums of the NHL. This was despite the longtime service of forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, who, despite usually having very productive individual seasons, were always let down by the management and scouting staff who failed to surround them with consistent secondary scorers, high-end defensemen or a long-term starting goalie. The Lightning then hit rock bottom in 2008 and 2009, where they finished at the very bottom of the standings. However, this did result in Tampa Bay getting the first and second overall picks.
It did not take a genius to make those picks as the Lightning selected Steven Stamkos (1st overall, 2008) and Victor Hedman (2nd overall, 2009). However, as soon as he was hired in 2010, Verbeek’s eye for talent began shining through. Initially hired as a pro scout by General Manager Steve Yzerman, he ascended through the ranks of the Lightning’s front office until earning the title of Assistant GM and Director of Player Personnel, the role he occupies today.
He became more and more influential in the team’s scouting department and spearheads the team’s professional and amateur scouting teams. Under Verbeek, the Lightning finally began putting together a competitive, sustainable lineup. First-round picks Vladislav Namestnikov and Andrei Vasilevskiy have both become regular contributors to the club, especially Vasilevskiy, who has developed into Tampa Bay’s starting goalie while only being 23 years old. The team also addressed their need for a young defenseman with top four potential by acquiring Mikhail Sergachev from the Montreal Canadiens for forward Jonathan Drouin. They also were able to sign blueliner Anton Stralman in 2014 who has played with Victor Hedman on the top pairing effectively
However, the true hallmark of a great scout or head of a scouting department is being able to find quality players outside of the first round. Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, both of whom who are top contributors to the Lightning’s offense, were taken in the bottom half of the second and seventh rounds of the 2011 NHL Draft, respectively. Nikita Nesterov was also selected in that draft outside of round one, who also blossomed into a depth NHL defender. Tyler Johnson, the team’s second line center, was undrafted all together and signed in March of 2011. Cedric Paquette and Jake Dotchin have both been growing into depth roles and were both selected beyond the first round in 2012. Adam Erne and Kristers Gudlevskis both came out of the 2013 draft outside of the first round and have also provided some depth to the forward and goalie groups. Brayden Point has emerged as a very good center and may even push Johnson for his second line center spot, and was a third round pick. Recently, the Bolts have quietly assembled a very deep, skilled pool of prospects not including their first-round picks (Brett Howden, Cal Foote), especially at forward, with the likes of Taylor Raddysh, Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, Mitchell Stephens, Boris Katchouk, Alexei Lipanov, and Dennis Yan, as well as defenders Libor Hajek, Dominik Masin, Ben Thomas, and Matt Spencer, as well as the acquisition of prospect Erik Cernak. All of these quality draft picks were thanks to both Yzerman having worked in Detroit under Ken Holland, who has made a career out of finding good players in the late rounds, and the diligence and eye for talent that Verbeek possesses, combined with his effective strategies he employs with his scouting staff.
If you are a hockey fan and interested in those people you don’t hear enough about, the one that most likely is at the top of that list in terms of deserving credit has to be Pat Verbeek. While Steve Yzerman has done a great job as GM and often times gets the majority of the credit for the monumental turnaround of the Lightning from a consistent loser to a perennial playoff contender as well as their return to the Cup finals, it should never be forgotten that Verbeek deserves just as much credit for his eye for talent and his brilliance when working with his professional and amateur scouting teams.