How Steve Yzerman was able to sign difference-makers but keep Detroit Red Wings’ checkbook flexible

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
| Detroit Free Press

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Steve Yzerman used free agency to bolster the Detroit Red Wings at every position — not with marquee signings but with smart ones.

He signed five players over three days and still has roughly $18 million in salary cap space. No one was signed for more than two years, which fits with how Yzerman is shaping the rebuild while waiting for more young players to make an impact.

“It gives you the flexibility to do a lot of different things,” he said Monday evening. “You get into the longer-term contracts, generally you’re locked into them. When you sign players we all hope that they perform well and justify the signing of the contract. We’re just trying to move cautiously. In the climate we’re in, with the uncertainty with our salary cap in years to come, we just felt like this a good way.”

Yzerman signed goaltender Thomas Greiss for two years, $7.2 million; defenseman Troy Stecher for two years, $3.4 million; forward Vladislav Namestnikov for two years, $4 million; forward Bobby Ryan for one year, $1 million and defenseman Jon Merrill for one year, $925,000.

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While some other general managers could lure free agents with joining a Stanley Cup contender, Yzerman’s sold players on how much of an opportunity they will have, and on wearing the winged wheel on their chests.

“You’re getting an opportunity to play, take advantage of that opportunity,” Yzerman said. “Even on a short-term contract, set yourself up for the next one. But I also believe the other lure, not just the opportunity — I believe the players are intrigued to play for an Original Six franchise and play for the Red Wings. A player like Jon Merrill, he’s played here with U-18 program, he grew up in the area. These kids, they know the area and they know the city and it’s a great place to play. So I think there is an allure to playing here in Detroit.”

Merrill grew up in Grand Blanc and Brighton, and played for the National Team Development Program and at Michigan. Namestnikov, who is former Wings forward Slava Kozlov’s nephew, grew up in the metro area and lives there in the offseason. Both spoke with great relish of the chance to play for the Wings.

Yzerman wasn’t particularly targeting those with ties to the area, but it was a nice bonus.

“I think it’s important for players to be excited about where they are playing, like where they are living,” he said. “Everyone has different motivations for places they want to play, and one thing about Detroit being a good hockey town, hockey city, is a lot of kids played here. Much like the kids in Toronto or Montreal were dreaming of playing for the Leafs or the Canadiens, in Detroit a lot of the kids grow up dreaming of playing for the Red Wings. So it’s great they’re enthusiastic and want to come back and play.”

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A chunk of the remaining cap space is earmarked for re-signing restricted free agents Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi, which Yzerman reiterated he is confident will get done. Bertuzzi filed for salary arbitration, but the sides can continue to negotiate. 

Longer-term deals are an option, but Yzerman cautioned that “with our own players we’re going to move slowly for the time being and be careful about handing out long-term deals.”

Yzerman may use a chunk to take advantage of a team in need of salary cap relief, a list that includes the Tampa Bay Lightning and Edmonton Oilers. Yzerman used the New York Rangers’ financial situation to acquire veteran defenseman Marc Staal for the coming season and a second-round pick in 2021. It’s a good way to help the team in the present and the future. If nothing materializes in that respect, Yzerman may look at who is left in free agency.

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Or not.

“I don’t think we’ll be terribly active,” he said. 

The newcomers will help fill the holes left after Yzerman parted ways with Jimmy Howard, Trevor Daley, Jonathan Ericsson and Justin Abdelkader. The Wings, who at 17-49-5 were the only team mathematically eliminated from the playoffs when the NHL paused the season March 12, needed to improve in every area. Yzerman believes he’s found guys who will do that.

“Bobby Ryan in particular, I think he will help our power play, he’ll help us score goals five-on-five,” Yzerman said. “Vladdie gives us depth upfront to play him in all situations. I think he will give us a bump in every aspect. Jon Merrill gives us help on the left side, Stecher on the right side. And we’re expecting Thomas Greiss to come in and help keep the puck out of our net and lower our goals-against average.”

The pandemic played a role in what Yzerman did in free agency, because numerous of the team’s top prospects, including Moritz Seider and Joe Veleno, are playing in Europe. It makes sense to keep them there for the season. Others, like Evgeny Svechnikov, Givani Smith and Dennis Cholowski, are expected to be at training camp and compete for jobs in what is now a more competitive environment.

Contact Helene St. James at 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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