18 thoughts on Steve Yzerman’s first 18 months running the Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
| Detroit Free Press

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In the year and a half since he took command of the Detroit Red Wings, the franchise he captained to three Stanley Cups, general manager Steve Yzerman has made significant inroads in improving the team, both in the short- and long term.

Without mortgaging the future, he has mined waivers, trades and free agents to make additions to the roster and replace players who don’t fit with his plans. Of the 22 NHL regulars on the roster Yzerman inherited on April 19, 2019, more than half are no longer with the organization. To the extent it has been reasonably possible, Yzerman has made it clear he will not tolerate underachievers.

Yzerman’s progress is remarkable, even for a man who was known as a great competitor during his playing days. 

Here are 18 thoughts on his first 18 months in office. 

1. Cost-consciousness

As NHL revenue has fallen dramatically because of the pandemic, Yzerman has been very budget conscious. There’s not a bad contract among the free agents he’s signed, neither in money nor term. 

2. Room to spend

Even after signing unrestricted free agents this month, there’s roughly $18 million in cap space. A chunk of that will go to re-sign restricted free agents Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi — earmark around $10 million for that — but that still puts the Wings comfortably below the $81.5 million cap ceiling. 

[How Yzerman was able to sign difference-makers but keep checkbook flexible]

3. Doing the math 

There were internal discussions about what to do with Justin Abdelkader, whose production (3 assists in 49 games) wasn’t matching his $4.25 million cap hit. Some viewed the buyout’s six-year cap impact as forbidding, but Yzerman thought it was the best option. The buyout’s salary cap hit is $1,805,556 in 2020-21, $2,305,556 in each of 2021-22 and 2022-23, and $1,055,556 in the following three years. In actual cost, the Wings will save. Buying him out now will cost $1,055,556 over each of the next six years, totaling $6,333,336. Buying out Abdelkader in 2021 would cost $4,222,224 (4 years at $1,055,556) plus his $3,500,000 salary in 2020-21, totaling $7,722,224.

[Detroit Red Wings’ costly decision to cut Justin Abdelkader: Who will take his place?]

4. Nielsen rating

Abdelkader wasn’t the only underperforming veteran deserving of a buyout — Frans Nielsen had nine points in 60 games — but Nielsen is still a solid skater and he only has two years left on his deal. This wasn’t a contest.

5. He’s watching

It was Nielsen who, on the first day of training camp in 2019, said Yzerman’s presence put players on their toes, because they knew most of them weren’t his guys. There was a much greater sense of being under scrutiny than in prior years. 

[Yzerman ready to go as Detroit Red Wings GM: ‘I don’t want to fail’]

6. Wait and see

Yzerman made modest changes in his first summer back in Detroit, holding good to his desire to spend time observing and evaluating. The only NHL-level players Yzerman had brought in at that point were free-agent signings Valtteri Filppula and Patrik Nemeth and trade acquisition Adam Erne. 

7. Small moves add up

Further alterations were made with smart, low-key trades: Flipping David Pope, a prospect who’d fallen off the depth chart, for veteran defenseman Alex Biega, who isn’t flashy, but plays within his capabilities. Flipping defense prospect Alec Regula for former first-round pick Brendan Perlini; it may have repercussions, as Perlini did nothing to warrant a qualifying offer this year, but that depends on what Regula does in Chicago’s system.

8. Fab Fabbri

Yzerman’s best trade was flipping Jacob de la Rose, a 2018 waiver-wire pickup, to St. Louis for former first-round pick Robby Fabbri. The ex-Blues forward has offensive skills (31 points in 52 games) and provided a much-needed booster shot. Signed to a two-year contract, he looks like he’ll be a solid contributor to the rebuild. 

[How Robby Fabbri’s potential for growth can boost Detroit Red Wings]

9. Depth charge

Only having one effective line on offense was among the many things that hurt the Wings in 2019-20. Injuries to Mantha (28 games), Andreas Athanasiou (17) and Filip Zadina (17) limited coach Jeff Blashill’s options because the Wings had no depth. Yzerman addressed the dearth of effective forwards by signing Vladislav Namestnikov (2 years, $4 million) and Bobby Ryan (1 year, $1 million). Those two, along with Mantha, Bertuzzi, Fabbri, Zadina and Dylan Larkin give the Wings good options for the top six and beyond.

10. Minding the net

Jimmy Howard’s goaltending was a huge issue last season. He won only two games, with the last coming on Oct. 29. Here, too, there was no depth — Calvin Pickard, signed by Yzerman in summer 2019 as a third-stringer, posted a 5.46 goals-against average in three appearances. Eric Comrie, picked up in a minor trade in November, was placed on waivers three weeks later after posting a 4.28 GAA in three games. That left Jonathan Bernier as the only good option down the stretch, and he appeared in the final 14 games of the season (including two in which Howard was pulled). In signing Thomas Greiss (two years, $7.2 million), the Wings at least appear to have two dependable goaltenders for the coming season.

[Steve Yzerman is Detroit Red Wings’ big draw with Thomas Greiss: ‘I trust Stevie’]

11. ‘D’-vastating

The defense bore blame, too, for how awful — they won only 17 games, and four of those came against the Montreal Canadiens —the Wings were in 2019-20. Losing veteran Danny DeKeyser after eight games exposed the lack of depth. With the recent signings of Troy Stecher (two years, $3.4 million) and Jon Merrill (one year, $925,000), the blueline corps, at the very least, should be better defensively. Offensive defenseman Moritz Seider is in Sweden for the season, but at least the Wings have a right side with some depth now in Filip Hronek, Biega and Merrill.

12. Time to Staal

Yzerman improved the defensive depth on the left side when he acquired veteran Marc Staal in a trade with the Rangers. They were so eager to rid their budget of Staal’s $5.3 million cap hit that they gave Yzerman a 2021 second-round pick. Staal could add another future asset if he’s sent to a contender at the 2021 trade deadline.

[How Marc Staal became ‘excited’ about joining Detroit Red Wings after talking to Steve Yzerman]

13. Cleaning house

Since Yzerman took over as GM two weeks after the end of the 2018-19 season, 13 NHL regulars are no longer part of the roster. In addition to buying out Abdelkader and trading de la Rose, Yzerman opted not to re-sign Howard, Thomas Vanek, Luke Witkowski, Trevor Daley, and Jonathan Ericsson, did not make qualifying offers to Martin Frk, Madison Bowey and Christoffer Ehn, and traded Andreas Athanasiou and Mike Green at the 2020 deadline.  That’s 12 …

14. Nik’s knack

The 13th is Niklas Kronwall, who retired and immediately joined the front office, watching games from the GM’s suite at Little Caesars Arena. Former teammates took to calling him “Corporate Kronwall.”

15. Youth movement?

Even with the free-agent signings, there are still spots open for Evgeny Svechnikov, Givani Smith and Dennis Cholowski to claim. The Wings have loaned most of their top prospects to European teams, especially those in Sweden, one of the few countries where hockey leagues are up and running. Zadina and Hronek, both in their native Czech Republic, will be recalled when training camp begins; likewise, Michael Rasmussen, who is in Austria, might be called back, too.

16. No European vacation

Placing prospects in Europe means that they have been practicing, even if their leagues aren’t playing yet. That’s the reality in the time of COVID-19. Training camp for the 2021-22 season should be fun, though,, with way more young players likely ready to push for jobs.

[ Grading Wings’ 2020 NHL draft: Lucas Raymond should be pillar of rebuild ]

17. Looking down the road

Seider probably would have made the Wings this coming season. He’s the top prospect on defense, an area Yzerman also has strengthened by drafting William Wallinder, Antti Tuomisto and Albert Johansson. Up front, Lucas Raymond projects to be a key rebuilding block. Their full impact won’t be clear for several years, but they offer confidence in the the future. 

18. Elite 18

Yzerman has been in a good mood on recent Zoom calls, in contrast with the night of the draft lottery, when he tersely noted he was better off not saying anything about picking fourth despite finishing in last place. The lottery aside, Yzerman should feel good. He has put the Wings in a much better place in just 18 months.

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 is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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