Niyo: Red Wings have plenty of needs, but GM Steve Yzerman has plenty of options

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

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They say time is money.

But when you take all the time Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman has had to prepare for next week’s NHL draft — we’re closing in on seven months since his team last played a hockey game — and add all the picks and possibilities in front of him, what you get is a man who sounds unencumbered.

That’s a refreshing change, after too many years of feeling the opposite here in Detroit, whether it was the weight of bad contracts Yzerman’s predecessor handed out or the outsized expectations that left a Red Wings roster that was sinking instead of swimming.

It’s also a rarity in the NHL at the moment, as many of Yzerman’s peers find themselves scrambling now in the face of a compressed offseason schedule and a depressed league economy. The annual entry draft is scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, qualifying offers for restricted free agents are due at the same time, and the floodgates for unrestricted free agency will open next Friday.

A flat salary cap ($81.5 million) for next season — and maybe the season after that as well — is forcing teams to make some deeper cuts than usual. And quickly, in some cases, as Yzerman’s successor in Tampa, Lightning GM Julien BriseBois, noted shortly after his team hoisted the Stanley Cup this week, because “the longer we wait, the fewer options we may have.”

Yzerman, for one, doesn’t have that worry, though he’s well aware he doesn’t have a Cup-contending roster, either. Coming off a historically-awful finish last season, the rebuilding Red Wings are flush with cap space — only Ottawa and Buffalo have more this fall — and we’ve seen the Wings capitalize on that already. They offered a lifeboat to the New York Rangers to take on the final year of veteran defenseman Marc Staal’s contract last week in exchange for a second-round draft pick in 2021. And with other teams facing a similar financial crunch, they’re in a position to do more.

Willing to listen

“I’ve had some discussions with other general managers about (how) they’re looking to create cap space,” Yzerman said Thursday in a pre-draft video conference. “But it really depends on their level of urgency or what else they’re trying to do for it to make sense. We try to justify, ‘What is a second-round pick worth?’ or ‘What is a first-round pick worth?’ if we’re, in effect, buying that. …

“We’re open to it — we have the ability to do it if we want. Right now, I’m not really sure — based on the discussions I’ve had — that I really expect anything to come along that will make sense for us to do it. But there’s still plenty of time.”

And money, though Yzerman does have a couple of big-ticket items on his offseason to-do list as well, coming to terms on contract extensions for restricted free agents Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi. Ideally, he’d get those two locked up before the start of free agency — negotiations are “ongoing” with their agents, Yzerman says — but ask him if he needs that cost-certainty now and you’ll get another shrug.

“I’m confident we’ll get them signed at some point, and we’d like to do that as soon as possible,” he said. “But the process takes time. And that’s OK. It’s not really gonna hold us back from doing anything else we need to do.”

That’s because Yzerman doesn’t expect to be diving headfirst into the first wave of free agency next week, doling out huge salaries on long-term deals for the top free agents in the marketplace. The Red Wings, dead last in the NHL standings by a wide margin last season, aren’t in a position to do that yet. And while Yzerman cautions that he “wouldn’t rule out anything,” in the next breath he also adds, “I think it’s a fair assumption that we’ll be relatively conservative.”

So expect more of the same from what we saw last summer, with a few free-agent additions on short-term deals to fill out Detroit’s roster. Yzerman confirmed Thursday he won’t be extending a contract offer to goalie Jimmy Howard prior to him hitting free agency next week. So he plans to sign a free-agent goalie to play alongside Jonathan Bernier in Detroit, and there’s a glut of netminders who’ll be available.

First, though, there’s a slew of draft picks to make. And after the scouting process was short-circuited by the pandemic and then extended a few months by the NHL’s bubble-hockey tournament to decide a champion, “I think we’re as well-prepared as we can be under the circumstance,” Yzerman said Thursday. “We’re comfortable that we have enough information to make good decisions.”

Comforted, too, that he has plenty of ammunition, owning six of the first 65 picks in this year’s draft, not to mention another half-dozen picks in the first three rounds next summer.

Favorites at 4

Yzerman says he has no idea how the first few dominoes will fall Tuesday, even if there’s a consensus around the league that after the Rangers select Alexis Lafreniere at No. 1 overall, the next two prospects off the board will be OHL center Quinton Byfield and German forward Tim Stutzle.

Barring a surprise there, that still leaves the Red Wings with their pick from a group of dynamic forwards, including winger Lucas Raymond — he’d be my choice, for what it’s worth — and centers Cole Perfetti and Marco Rossi. Or perhaps it’ll be one of the top defensemen — Jake Sanderson or Jamie Drysdale — or even Russian goaltending prospect Yaroslav Askarov, though that seems like an ill-advised long shot in today’s NHL.

Regardless, Yzerman insists, “We’re pretty excited, however it plays out, with what our options will be at four.”

He sounds pretty satisfied with the prospect of running this virtual draft, which will be his first with his own staff in Detroit after going into last year’s swap meet with the one he’d inherited from Ken Holland when he rejoined the Red Wings in April 2019.

Kris Draper is the new director of amateur scouting, “and I have a very good comfort level with him and knowing what he’s looking for and players that he likes or traits that he likes in a player,” Yzerman said of his former teammate. Both of Draper’s chief scouts — Ryan Rezmierski and Jesse Wallin — will be in the draft room at Little Caesars Arena next week as well. But due to the pandemic, the team’s scouts based in Europe and Canada will be looped in via video conference, as they have been throughout the last several months of meetings, meetings and more meetings.

They had more time to think, but less to think about, as it turned out, with this year’s draft class unable to complete their seasons or compete in April’s U-18 World Championships that were scheduled for the Red Wings’ backyard here in Plymouth. But the virtual scouting process did provide more opportunity to get to know these prospects — “We spent a lot more time with them, actually,” — through lengthy Zoom interviews and the like.

On an NHL pre-draft media call last week, Perfetti, who starred for the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit last season, mentioned he’d had plenty of contact with the Red Wings.

“(Yzerman) has been on the calls, but for the most part, he’s had his camera off and has been very quiet, just kind of listening,” Perfetti said. “It was mainly Kris Draper who was running the calls and he was leading it and asking most of the questions. Yzerman wasn’t saying too much, he was kind of just sitting back with his screen off and I think taking notes and listening to what I had to say.”

If you’re looking for hints there, though, don’t bother. Yzerman joked Thursday that he was busy doing yoga during most of the interviews, “so I was trying to not be a distraction.” He also said he might’ve been on another call at the same time.

“Or quite frankly, I’ve got an older dog who barks pretty much for no reason whatsoever, so a lot of times I was muting my microphone for that reason,” he said. “So I really wouldn’t read into anything I do.”

Duly noted.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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