Steve Yzerman’s third offseason as general manager of the Detroit Red Wings has begun, and a long to-do list awaits him.
The final date of a 56-game schedule fell Saturday, the Wings already having been eliminated from playoff contention. Not that the Wings were expected to advance, even before COVID-19 and injuries ravaged the lineup, given that the rebuild still needs an influx of major talent before springtime in Detroit once again warrants chatter about the Stanley Cup.
Yzerman may take Sunday off to celebrate: It is his 56th birthday, and it is Mother’s Day. But business beckons.
The coaching situation appears to be first on Yzerman’s list, given that last month he said he’d “sit down very quickly after the season and discuss that” with Jeff Blashill. The perception within the organization is that Blashill has done a good job with what he has been given. The work ethic and culture, of which the Wings are so protective, has been maintained, and it speaks well for Blashill how hard the Wings competed, even as Tyler Bertuzzi, Bobby Ryan, Robby Fabbri and captain Dylan Larkin all suffered season-ending injuries.
Yzerman’s second task includes exit meetings with players, many of which will be conducted virtually. Young players such as Filip Zadina, Michael Rasmussen and Joe Veleno will receive feedback on their performances and what they need to work on over the summer. Meanwhile, the veterans will find out if they fit into next season’s plans.
Who to retain
A number of players are eligible for unrestricted free agency, but it’s unlikely all hit the market. Goaltender Jonathan Bernier figures to top that group, given how well he has played in two straight seasons. There’s no one in the farm system ready to push for an NHL job, and signing Bernier for two years provides a degree of stability. (Thomas Greiss is under contract through next season, as well.)
Luke Glendening is another clear-cut candidate to bring back — he’s a reliable defensive forward who is one of the best faceoff guys in the NHL and a big part of the locker room culture.
Forwards Sam Gagner and Ryan are likely to figure into next season’s plans, too, because they’re skilled players who embrace mentoring young players. Defenseman Marc Staal has played well and could further appeal as a mentor for Moritz Seider, whose dominant performance this season in the Swedish Hockey League indicates he’s ready to be in the Wings’ lineup next fall.
The restricted free agents include Jakub Vrana, Bertuzzi, Adam Erne and Filip Hronek. Vrana is the most interesting player in the group, because he’s new — acquired April 12 in the Anthony Mantha trade — and young-ish — at age 25, he’s two years removed from being unrestricted. Does Yzerman sign him to a one-year deal, and get a bit more of a feel for how the winger can fit into the rebuild? Or does Yzerman extend him for four years, as he did with Mantha at around the same age? Vrana certainly has made a favorable first impression, with nine points through 10 games, and his willingness to get better as a 200-foot player has gotten rave reviews from Blashill.
Drafting a plan
Also on Yzerman’s list: Preparing for the expansion draft, which is scheduled for July 21. Teams have to expose at least two forwards and one defenseman who played at least 27 games in 2021 (prorated from 40 in an 82-game season) or more than 70 games over the past two seasons and who are under contract through next season. That’s not an issue for the Wings: Forwards Frans Nielsen and Richard Panik and defenseman Danny DeKeyser meet those conditions. Likewise, teams must expose a goaltender under contract through next season; Kaden Fulcher fits the bill there.
The entry draft is July 23-24, despite Yzerman’s advocating for pushing it back because the pandemic has made it difficult to scout this season. Still, scouts will have reports on many of the players available — especially the upper-echelon ones — from seeing them in 2019-20. The Wings hold 12 picks so far in the 2021 draft, with seven of them in the first three rounds: Their own first-round pick, and the Washington Capitals’ pick (from the Anthony Mantha trade); their own second-round pick plus the Edmonton Oilers’ (from the Andreas Athanasiou trade in 2020) and the New York Rangers’ pick from the Staal trade; and, finally, their own third-round pick and that of the Vegas Golden Knights (from Ken Holland’s Tomas Tatar trade in 2018).
This is where Yzerman’s most careful work comes, because the draft is the key to restoring the Wings to contender status. Yzerman himself was a high first-round pick (fourth, 1983), but it wasn’t until the Wings hit the motherlode in the 1989 draft — Nicklas Lidstrom in the third round, Sergei Fedorov in the fourth and Vladimir Konstantinov in the 11th — that they became contenders. Even then, it took eight more years before the Stanley Cup once again belonged to Detroit.
Into the summer
Yzerman has been in charge of the Wings for a little more than two years, showing a patient, savvy hand. His first pick, Seider, projects to be a significant contributor to the rebuild. His biggest trade — Mantha for a package that included Vrana and a first-round pick — projects to help the rebuild in the present and the future. As he embarks on his third offseason, Yzerman’s tasks are manifold, but it’s clear he has a master plan.
Contact Helene St. James at email@example.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 Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.