Detroit Red Wings mailbag: How will Steve Yzerman handle all these prospects?

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
| Detroit Free Press

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Nearly 40 years have passed since the last time a Detroit Red Wings player skipped straight from the draft to the NHL.

Evaluating when a prospect is ready for promotion is the topic of this Wings mailbag, as John R wonders if it will be different under the management of Steve Yzerman: “I wondered what strategy the new regime in Detroit will take with European players. For example Jonatan Berggren is tearing up the SHL currently. If he continues to perform and does not have a severe drought, is there a chance he comes ready to play in NHL without seasoning in AHL first? We all know that the longtime approach has been to let the kids develop and ripen in Grand Rapids prior to getting the call in Detroit, any chance this changes now that Stevie is running things?”

For subscribers: 18 thoughts on Yzerman’s first 18 months running the Wings

As with everything else since COVID-19 became a part of our daily vocabulary, this upcoming season is skewed by the pandemic. Many of the Wings’ top prospects, including Moritz Seider, Joe Veleno and Jared McIsaac, have been loaned to European teams, and as the starting date for the 2020-21 NHL season remains a moving target — and minor-league hockey remains uncertain — they’re better off there. 

[ That time Yzerman ripped the Red Wings over trade rumors ]

But even without the weight of the pandemic, Yzerman has shown he’s not going to rush prospects just because the Wings need an influx of good, young talent. Seider came into training camp last year having spent 2018-19 playing in the top men’s league in Germany, when he was 17-18 years old. Yzerman sent him to Grand Rapids to develop. Filip Zadina, a first-round pick from 2019, spent his first pro year in GR, and began his second one there, too. It took Zadina excelling in GR (he had 10 points in 10 games between Oct. 25-Nov. 15, 2019) and an injury to Anthony Mantha for Zadina to get a call to come to Detroit. 

More on Wings: 5 important questions for Yzerman with new season in distance

Shortly before the call-up, coach Jeff Blashill had this to say when asked why the team kept putting woefully underperforming veterans in the lineup, rather than give a young player a chance. “We’re trying to do everything possible to put our prospects in the best position to succeed long term,” he said. “Certainly if Steve thinks one of those guys in the minors is best-served being up here, then they’d be up here. He used the word to me once — ‘thriving’ — it’s a hard league to thrive in until you’re ready to thrive. In terms of prospects, that’s totally dependent on what’s best for their long-term development.”

Such an approach is in tune with that of former GM Ken Holland. In February 2018, then-prospect Tyler Bertuzzi was thriving with the Griffins, and the Wings wanted him in Detroit. That coincided neatly with a desire to accumulate draft picks for the rebuild, and so Tomas Tatar was flipped to Vegas for a first-round pick (which was used on Veleno). 

Yzerman was asked in June if he viewed Seider as being ready to join the Wings out of camp for the 2020-21 season. “We’ll give him an opportunity. If he’s ready to go, he’ll play. If not, he’ll spend a little more time in the American Hockey League,” Yzerman said. This was before the NHL punted the start of next season to at least January, and Seider was loaned to a team in Sweden, but the point is, Yzerman isn’t fast-tracking anyone. Seider will be in a Wings uniform when he’s ready — which he almost certainly will be looking ahead to 2021-22.

European players play on a larger ice surface, but it’s not that they need a year to adjust to a smaller rink, it’s that they, like their North American counterparts, need time to develop and mature mentally and physically. Joe Murphy, the first overall pick in 1986, split his first three seasons between the Wings and Adirondack. Nicklas Lidstrom didn’t need a year in the AHL — but after being drafted in 1989 he did need two seasons with his Swedish team before joining the Wings in 1991-92.

[ Meet the Wings’ draft picks trying to go from the end of the draft to the NHL ]

Pavel Datsyuk won a Stanley Cup as a rookie with the Wings in 2001-02, but his first season in the NHL was three years after he’d been drafted. Henrik Zetterberg logged 1,082 games in a Wings uniform, won a Stanley Cup and wore the C, but he spent three seasons in Sweden between his draft year, 1999, and his debut in Detroit, 2002.

It’s challenging for 18-year-olds to jump directly to the NHL and thrive, even for the elite ones. It hasn’t happened with a player drafted by the Wings since 1983, when a certain forward eyed the team and said, “they’re rebuilding. I think I have a chance.” Now Yzerman is in charge of the rebuild, and his message has been firm: Draft picks won’t be in Detroit until they’re ready to thrive, whether they’re North American or European. 

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

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