Detroit Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman faces crucial week for rebuild

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Steve Yzerman is embarking on the most important week of the year for his Detroit Red Wings and the state of the rebuild. 

The coronavirus pandemic forced the NHL in mid-March to delay major events, which has led to an October that’s busy not with trimming the roster, but with filling it. The draft is set for Tuesday and Wednesday — Yzerman’s second since taking over as general manager. And Friday marks the start of free agency, where the Wings have the financial flexibility to be big spenders but are likely to be frugal.

Here are the major touchstones for the week ahead.

Fourth and fine

The Wings hold the fourth pick in Tuesday’s first round of the draft, which means they’ll miss out on consensus No. 1 pick Alexis Lafreniere and likely on Tim Stützle and Quinton Byfield, the projected next two players selected. It’s certainly possible to get a dynamic, franchise-boosting player at fourth — Yzerman was one himself, and defenseman Cale Makar (2017) has helped catapult the Colorado Avalanche back into contender mode — but who will Yzerman select? Jamie Drysdale is the top-ranked defenseman and projects as a future No. 1 in the NHL, which will be hard to pass on, especially after the former regime passed on Quinn Hughes, a 2020 Calder Trophy runner-up, in 2018. But there’s a number of intriguing forwards available, including Marco Rossi, a superb skater and playmaker; Cole Perfetti, as deft at scoring goals as he is setting them up; Alexander Holtz, a right-shot right winger who likes to shoot; and Lucas Raymond, an explosive skater with the smarts to match. Iaroslav Askarov is the top-ranked goaltender, but it seems likelier Yzerman will use his first pick on a skater. 

More draft coverage:

Yzerman could go with Austrian draft pick who idolized Pavel Datsyuk

If Yzerman wants another defenseman in Round 1, here are his best options

Forward Cole Perfetti gets silent treatment from Yzerman

Day 2

The player selected at fourth has the best chance to move the needle of the rebuild, but Yzerman has proven he can find standout NHL players on Day 2. The Wings hold three second-round picks: Their own at No. 32, Edmonton’s at 45, and Washington’s at 55. And they also have two third-round picks (Nos. 63, 65 from San Jose), among four others. The assortment of picks should give Yzerman options to move up, down or stand pat as he tries to acquire the best players possible.

Two examples come to mind. In 2011, early in Yzerman’s tenure as the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, he nabbed Nikita Kucherov in the second round, at 58th overall, and nine years later, Kucherov is a perennial all-star who just helped the Lightning win the Stanley Cup Final as the scoring leader of the 2020 playoffs. .

The other example came in the third round in 2016, when Yzerman selected center Brayden Point for Tampa Bay. Yzerman relayed the story of how that pick came about during his Zoom call Friday. The Lightning held the 80th pick and the Minnesota Wild held the 79th pick. Yzerman got ahold of then-Wild GM Chuck Fletcher and asked if he’d be interested in flipping third-round picks if Tampa threw in a seventh-round pick. “He looked at me, I’m 10 feet away, kind of like, ‘You serious?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘OK, but you have to tell me who you’re picking,’ ” Yzerman said. “We told him and we gave him a seventh-round pick and obviously it turned out to be good, but in all likelihood Point would probably still have been there and we would have gotten another seventh-round pick.”

10 in the hand

Yzerman holds 10 picks overall this year, and doesn’t sound like he plans to relinquish any in a trade. “The more lottery tickets you have, the more chance you have of winning,” he said. “Ultimately only so many players come out of each draft. I like to spread it out. I don’t think with the 10 that we have, we’re even close to too many.

“I’d like to hold onto our picks. If there’s a good, young player that’s being moved that we think is going to be here for a long time, and the cost to acquire that player isn’t, in our eyes, too much, I would look at that.”

It doesn’t make sense for a rebuilding team to use draft picks to acquire veteran players (such as a goaltender) because one can be had via free agency for money alone. Or, as Yzerman did in adding defenseman Marc Staal via trade, by taking advantage of a team — in that case, the New York Rangers — that’s in a salary cap crunch.

[Lightning’s Stanley Cup win highlights Steve Yzerman’s challenges with Wings]

Player evaluations 

The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the combine, but, “I think it is debatable as far as fitness and things, how valuable that information is,” Yzerman said. Instead, scouts used the extra time to review and debate potential picks. “We take a lot of things into account — hockey IQ, different skills that make a good player,” Yzerman said. “They have to have a combination of the things that we feel are important. I can’t tell you every player that’s gone through the Red Wing organization the last 20 years, there has been a lot good players that their greatest strength wasn’t necessarily smarts. Some of them are just so darn good. Good hockey players come in a lot of forms, so there’s no one characteristic that is going to be a telling factor.”

[Why Yzerman kept quiet in prospect interviews]

Free-agent market

Yzerman plans to use free agency to sign a goaltender to replace Jimmy Howard. It looks to be a stellar market, with goalies such as Braden Holtby, Anton Khudobin, Thomas Greiss, Cam Talbot and Henrik Lundqvist available, though some players doubtlessly will be looking for more than Yzerman is willing to give. “It has to make sense,” he said. “The contract has to make sense, the AAV has to make sense, and the term. … It’s a fair assumption that we’ll be relatively conservative.”

Yzerman may also sign a forward, depending on what decision he makes on some of his restricted free agents. There have been contract discussions with Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi, and Yzerman is confident he’ll get both signed before next season begins. Adam Erne, Christoffer Ehn and Dmytro Timashov are also likely to be re-signed, but Brendan Perlini may not be.

A quiet place

Normally the draft takes place in an arena, with team personnel crammed around tables that are positioned within a few feet of one another on the arena floor. This year, though, Yzerman and select staff — including Kris Draper, the Wings’ director of amateur scouting, and Jesse Wallin, a chief amateur scout — will be at a conference room at an Olympia Entertainment building. Scouts based in Europe (such as Hakan Andersson) and Canada will join via  Zoom. Teams already have tested the technology that will be used during the draft. Usually drafts are hectic affairs, with distractions ranging from background music to crowd noise. “I kind of like this format, I think it’s going to work really well,” Yzerman said. “You do not have the (ability) to just quickly catch the eye of a general manager at the next table or what not and meet up and have that brief conversation, but we’ve got multiple phone lines and we even do a lot of our business, sadly, through texts now, like the rest of the world. A quick text here and there — hopefully you send it to the right person — you can get a lot done. It will work.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings will be published October 13 by Triumph Books. To order, go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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