The day he formally returned to the organization with which he is synonymous, Steve Yzerman signaled he knew guiding the Detroit Red Wings out of a rebuild would be arduous.
“I believe to be a good team, it takes time,” Yzerman said on that day two years ago Monday. “One player can have an impact, but to build a team, it takes years.”
Yzerman has made a significant imprint over that span, but the workload remains immense. Yzerman knows how difficult rebuilds are better than anyone — during his playing days, he spent many a playoff exit sobbing in the back rooms of Joe Louis Arena before finally, after 14 years, hoisting the Stanley Cup. And that was with the miracle of the 1989 draft, when the Wings mined Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov.
With a nod to his number he wore, now raised to the rafters in Little Caesars Arena, here are 19 thoughts on what Yzerman has accomplished since April 19, 2019.
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1. Trading Anthony Mantha was not an indictment on the state of the rebuild, it was an indictment on Mantha. Yzerman said early on he wanted to observe the team he took over from his predecessor, Ken Holland. Yzerman saw in Mantha what others in the organization had seen for longer: That the nights he was unnoticeable outnumbered the ones where Mantha dominated. Anyone who remembers Yzerman knows how competitive he was as a player — he played on one knee, basically, at the end of his career, and still gave it his all. Yzerman had had enough, and that’s what led to the trade.
2. The return on Mantha was impressive. In Jakub Vrana, Yzermand got a former first-round pick who is gifted offensively, in his mid-20s and whose effort has been questioned — all descriptors that fit Mantha, too. The hope is a change of organization will positively impact Vrana. (Scoring in his debut wasn’t a bad start.) Richard Panik, another forward, can be exposed in the expansion draft, and there’s plenty of cap room to keep him otherwise. Yzerman also netted a first-round pick in 2021 and a second-round pick in 2022 — that will feed the rebuild.
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3. The Mantha trade was in line with what Yzerman did at the 2020 deadline, when he moved 30-goal scorer Andreas Athanasiou, another skilled forward whose work ethic disappointed. Yzerman wants a team of hard workers. Former first-round picks Filip Zadina and Michael Rasmussen, for example, haven’t put up great numbers this season, but they’ve hustled and look like they belong.
4. The other big subtraction Yzerman made in 2020: Buying out Justin Abdelkader. Though it was costly — $6.33 million, spread across the books through 2025-26 — it was necessary to shed a player whose contributions had dwindled to nothing. It also sent the message that nobody should think they’re safe, not even veterans with a letter on their sweater.
5. Since Yzerman took over, 14 NHL regulars are no longer part of the roster. In addition to shedding Mantha, Athanasiou and Abdelkader, Yzerman opted not to re-sign Jimmy Howard, Thomas Vanek, Luke Witkowski, Trevor Daley and Jonathan Ericsson. He did not issue a qualifying offer to Martin Frk, Madison Bowey and Christoffer Ehn, and also traded Mike Green and Jacob de la Rose. Niklas Kronwall retired.
6. Of the non-deadline trades Yzerman has made, flipping de la Rose — a waiver-wire pickup — to the St. Louis Blues for Robby Fabbri turned out to be a steal. Fabbri has done what the Wings hope to see from Vrana (funnily enough, both are from the 2014 draft — Vrana at 13th, Fabbri at 21st), and that is thrive in a new environment.
7. Yzerman has balanced adding skilled younger players with skilled veterans who set good examples, such as Bobby Ryan and Sam Gagner. Both came into the league with enormous expectations — Ryan went second overall in the 2004 draft, behind Sidney Crosby; Gagner went sixth in 2007 — and are good role models and sounding boards for the likes of Zadina and others.
8. Yzerman was budget-conscious even before the pandemic made it necessary, signing players for one or two years. He has found stop-gap players without mortgaging the future. The one big contract he took on in a trade, Marc Staal’s $5.3 million, was worth it because it yielded a second-round pick in 2021 from the New York Rangers.
9. The thinking when Yzerman added Staal was that he could be flipped at the deadline for another pick. But the trade deadline was relatively quiet, as teams were impacted by the pandemic. Yzerman added mid-round picks in ’21 and ’22 by trading defensemen Jon Merrill and Patrik Nemeth, as well as using cap space to facilitate a deal between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning. Those are three picks that add flexibility, as they can also be used as add-ons in trades.
10. Yzerman noted after this year’s trade deadline that he does have to put a competitive team on the ice. To that end, it made sense not to trade goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who has been, as his teammates have put it, a rock. Bernier didn’t want to be traded, and it makes sense to give him a contract extension, since there’s no one ready in the pipelines.
11. Even with holding on to Bernier, Staal, and Luke Glendening, all pending unrestricted free agents, Yzerman carries 12 picks into the 2021 draft, including five in the first two rounds. That potentially could speed up the rebuild.
12. One of the most important prospects is Moritz Seider, the defenseman Yzerman drafted sixth overall in 2019. Loaning Seider to Rögle in the Swedish Hockey League meant a season-long commitment — other European leagues allowed players to be recalled once hockey started up in North America — and it has worked wonderfully. The 20-year-old has flourished, tallying seven goals and 21 assists in 41 games, and is in position to win a championship. He’s poised to join the Wings’ lineup next season.
13. Seider has been vocal about the positive impact of partnering with Eric Gelinas, a veteran who spent five seasons in the NHL. Danny DeKeyser could fit that mentorship role in Detroit, or perhaps Yzerman extends Staal for a year.
14. While advancing the rebuild depends on growth from within, Yzerman has shown he likes to have a balance of veterans, as well. He’s expected to extend Bernier and Glendening. Bringing back Ryan or Gagner — probably not both — would be another logical choice, as would a new deal for Staal. That still leaves room to add Seider, and potentially Joe Veleno.
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15. The one area Yzerman has not made a change: Coaching. Yzerman’s return coming a few weeks after Jeff Blashill signed a two-year extension made for interesting timing. Yzerman had stepped down as GM in Tampa Bay at the start of the 2018-19 season, setting in motion an eventual return to Detroit. When Yzerman arrived, he endorsed Blashill, and has done so multiple times since; Yzerman has pointed to a lack of talent, not Blashill’s coaching, as the reason for the losing records. But Blashill’s deal is up after this season, and Yzerman may decide to clean house. But Yzerman sees progress in the team’s young players. And Blashill doesn’t draw a top-level paycheck, a not-insignificant factor given the Wings’ lack of revenue over the past year.
16. In 2007, in his role as GM of Team Canada, Yzerman named close friend and former linemate Gerard Gallant as an assistant coach for the world championships. Since then Gallant has been a head coach in the NHL three times (and fired three times). He has been available since January 2020, and Yzerman hasn’t bit.
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17. Gallant was on the team when Yzerman was named captain in October 1986. Coach Jacques Demers presented Yzerman with a Wings sweater bearing the “C” at a news conference after a practice in Oak Park. “He was pretty excited, but he didn’t show it much,” Gallant said at the time. “That’s just the way Steve is. He doesn’t show a lot of emotion.”
18. When Yzerman named Larkin captain in January 2021, the two were in a room by themselves, wearing masks. “He stands out as a leader in his work ethic, his competitiveness, his inner drive to be really good, to win,” Yzerman said. “He’s a perfect fit for us as a captain.”
19. Yzerman is the perfect fit to guide the Wings out of the rebuild. After retiring in 2006, he honed his skills for four years as a member of the Wings’ front office, and then spent eight years as Lightning GM. The changes he has imposed over two years show patience and savvy in shaping the Wings towards another Stanley Cup.
Need a gift for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day?
What: “The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings.”
Author: Helene St. James, who has covered the Red Wings at the Detroit Free Press since 1996. Foreword by Chris Osgood, winner of three Stanley Cups as a Wings goaltender.
Publisher: Triumph Books.
Pages: 336 pages (paperback).
Availability: Available in leading bookstores and online from booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
About the book: “The Big 50” brings to life the men and moments that made the Red Wings such a dynamic and iconic franchise for nearly a century. The book features never-before-told stories about the greats such as Howe, Yzerman, Lidstrom and Lindsay, the near-greats beloved by fans and the great memories of Fight Night, the Fabulous Fifties, the Team for the Ages, the Grind Line, The Joe and much more.
Get it signed! For a personalized copy of “The Big 50,” contact St. James at email@example.com