| The Detroit News
Detroit —It’s one thing to be active, and the Red Wings have no choice. It’s another thing to be proactive, and Steve Yzerman is barreling ahead, moving up, moving around, moving as quickly as possible.
In the past week, we’ve seen all sorts of crafty, smallish deals, the ones that eventually lead to biggish deals. When the Wings wrapped up the two-day NHL draft Wednesday, they’d completed four trades to add three picks and selected 12 players, including high-upside scoring winger Lucas Raymond at No. 4. They stocked up at every position while mining their preferred hockey port, Sweden. If draft picks are lottery tickets, Yzerman went to the corner store and bought a bunch of scratch-offs with possible high payoffs.
Barely a week after the team he led for eight seasons, the Tampa Bay Lightning, won the Stanley Cup, Yzerman showed what he plans to do, without really saying it. Ask him if there are specific traits he seeks in young players, his answer: “Yes.” Ask if he can expound on those traits, his answer, with a smile: “No.”
But look at the uber-talented Lightning, who drafted smart, high-end players and then chose wisely in the middle rounds to fill out the roster. There are plenty of traits to consider when drafting a hockey player, and that’s why Yzerman is reluctant to pinpoint one or two. The old saying in sports is that speed kills, but in Yzerman’s mind, it might be slightly different.
Skill kills. And thrills. Also, Swedes lead. (See: Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall.)
When the seven-round draft finally ended after about seven more hours Wednesday, Yzerman was pleased with the volume and balance of his haul.
“We have skills or characteristics that we value, and I’m guessing pretty much every team has the same characteristics,” Yzerman said. “You talk about five-tool players in baseball, our sport isn’t that much different. We’re looking for good players, and they come in all different forms. But the reality of the NHL is, it’s becoming faster, and like every sport, you gotta keep up.”
Swedes and smarts
To keep up, you gotta catch up. Scour the Wings draft and you won’t find many hulking bruisers. Oh, they added size, including 6-foot-4 defenseman William Wallinder in the second round. The first three picks were Swedes — Raymond, Wallinder, center Theodor Niederbach — and each was praised by analysts for their skill and “high hockey IQs.”
Yzerman is no dummy, and isn’t particularly interested in drafting any. I asked Kris Draper, the Wings’ director of amateur scouting, how the Wings gauge “hockey IQ” and his answer wasn’t unique. Most teams want guys like that, but Yzerman puts a higher priority on it.
“It seems the smarter players always have the puck on their sticks,” Draper said. “They know how to carry the puck, know where to put the puck, know how to get open. To me, that’s what hockey sense is, the vision and creativity with the puck. That’s what we’re seeing from Lucas Raymond. There’s a lot of things you can teach, but intelligent hockey IQ is just a gift.”
Raymond, only 18, has been playing in Sweden’s top league against older players, so his statistics aren’t the lure. Yzerman also went for a less-accomplished talent last year with German defenseman Moritz Seider at No. 6 overall. Swedish center Niederbach, taken in the second round, also fits the nifty, shifty mold.
Again, the description of Raymond was succinct.
“We think he’s a very intelligent, very highly-skilled, very competitive player,” Yzerman said. “We think he fits in with the type of team we want to build.”
In Tampa, Yzerman inherited Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, who developed into stars. Only one of his first-round picks, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, is still with the team. But he did his clever work in the second and third rounds — Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli — and supplemented with shrewd signings and trades.
The unspoken theory is, you can take more chances when players have higher upside, especially if you have more draft picks. Three times Wednesday, Yzerman traded down to receive an extra pick, including a future fourth-rounder.
Just in case the hockey IQ issue wasn’t clear, the Wings used a sixth-round pick on defensemen Kyle Aucoin, who’s headed to Harvard. They clinched it in the seventh round taking forward Kienan Draper, son of Kris, who as a player was known for smarts and speed. Yzerman isn’t known for sentimentality, so Kienan Draper probably can play.
In slightly more than a year as GM here, Yzerman has aired and cleared the place out. He knew it was an enormous undertaking, and the Wings posted the worst record in the league by a wide margin. (Don’t get me started on the ridiculous draft lottery that bumped them to No. 4. This is a family newspaper).
Earlier in the week, Yzerman waived veteran Justin Abdelkader to buy out his contract, opening even more salary-cap space. Yzerman has moved on from several players, including long-time goalie Jimmy Howard, Jonathan Ericsson and Trevor Daley. He also dealt away Andreas Athanasiou and Mike Green, and acquired contributors such as Robby Fabbri and Sam Gagner.
The makeover won’t pay dividends on the ice for a while, but you have to think it’s coming. Seider looks like he could be a top defenseman, and it’s hard to find a trade that Yzerman lost. He dealt Athanasiou to Edmonton GM Ken Holland, and the former Wings boss recently opted not to re-sign Athanasiou. The Wings received two second-round picks and Gagner for virtually nothing.
They need two goalies, a veteran free-agent and a youngster to develop, and they did select Czech goalie Jan Bednar in the fourth round. As much as anything, they need time and smarts, and Yzerman has proven to be creative. This wasn’t a franchise-altering haul, but the type of skill-heavy draft the Wings needed. More important, Yzerman again showed he’ll be proactive, and won’t just wait for the future to arrive.