It was more than quarter-century ago now that Steve Yzerman was standing at a craps table in Las Vegas, enjoying an offseason break during his Hall of Fame playing career. A couple of Red Wings fans from Windsor spotted him, but given Detroit’s history of playoff failures back then — Yzerman and his teammates hadn’t yet ended this storied franchise’s Stanley Cup drought — they opted not to stick around and roll the dice.
“There’s no luck at this table,” the fans joked, or at least that’s how Yzerman recounted the story a few years later as he and his Red Wings teammates celebrated their 1997 Cup triumph.
Luck, of course, had little to do with Yzerman’s championship success on the ice here in Detroit. And it apparently won’t in the early stages of his tenure as the Red Wings’ general manager, either.
At least not when it comes to the NHL Draft lottery, which came and went again Wednesday night much like those fans did. Abruptly, and without much compassion. The Wings will pick sixth overall in the first round of July’s draft, just like they did two other times in the past three years.
The draft lottery has been around since 1995, but the Wings have only been a part of it the last five years. They’ve rolled snake eyes each time.
“There’s no sense complaining about it: The system is what it is,” Yzerman said Wednesday night, pausing to congratulate Buffalo on winning the No. 1 overall pick and adding wryly, “We didn’t go backwards. … Not much you can do about it. I’m not losing a minute of sleep over it.”
Nor should he, obviously. Because there’s plenty of work ahead for Yzerman and his staff this summer. There’s an expansion draft and what figures to be a lively trade market looming in July before the start of free agency. But there’s also the fact the Wings own more draft capital than any other NHL team with a dozen picks at the moment.
That includes two first-rounders, courtesy of the Anthony Mantha trade with Washington back in April. (That pick from the Capitals will be either No. 23 or 24 overall, depending on the outcome of the Tampa-Carolina playoff series.) The Wings also own the rights to second-rounders from Edmonton and the New York Rangers this year, so Kris Draper and his amateur scouting staff will be as busy as ever with five of the first 54 picks, six of the top 70 and seven of the top 92.
That’s the good news for Wings fans. And so is this, perhaps: There’s bound to be more guesswork in this draft than any in recent history, thanks to the difficulty teams had in scouting through the pandemic. Tournaments were canceled, junior seasons were shortened or shuttered, international travel was limited.
“Some leagues played, some leagues didn’t play,” said Seattle GM Ron Francis, whose expansion team moved up from third to second behind Buffalo in the draft order. “Some kids played in Europe that normally would play in North America. You’re constantly trying to evaluate them against their peers and hopefully you get it right.”
Yzerman’s hoping that presents his staff with an opportunity, though.
“I do think there’ll be some really good players for whatever reason that are picked later in the draft,” he said. “Maybe they didn’t play at all, or they played a little bit, or they played in a men’s league in Europe and hardly got on the ice. And you’re gonna wake up in three years and say, ‘Wow, I had no idea this guy was gonna be this good.’”
Unlike last year, there’s no consensus choice for the No. 1 overall pick, though Michigan defenseman Owen Power seems like the frontrunner right now. There’s plenty of debate about how the top 10 will play out, too. (“Everybody’s lists will be so different” Yzerman predicts.)
But there’ll be intriguing options at No. 6, whether it’s another Swedish forward like William Eklund or maybe another Wolverine like Kent Johnson or possibly the latest model from the Hughes hockey factory, Luke, a defenseman from the USA Hockey program in Ann Arbor.
The other silver lining for the Wings in striking out in the lottery again, I suppose, is that there’s no prospect being hailed as a generational talent, like winger Alexis Lafreniere last year or centers Shane Wright and Connor Bedard in the 2022 and 2023 drafts.
Still, it stings just the same. The Wings had a 7.6% chance of landing the first pick this year after finishing the abbreviated 2020-21 season with the NHL’s fifth-worst record. That gave Detroit the sixth-best odds overall, with Seattle’s expansion team added to the lottery with the third-best odds for its inaugural entry draft.
Of course, Wings fans need not be reminded how fickle the lottery luck can be. This is the fifth straight year Detroit has missed the playoffs, following that remarkable 25-year postseason streak. But they’ve seen their chances iced each time.
Three teams — New Jersey, Dallas and Philadelphia — jumped into the top three in the 2017 lottery, bumping the Wings from seventh to ninth. Two more (Carolina and Montreal) made the leap in 2018, as the Wings dropped from fifth to sixth. In 2019, the Rangers and Blackhawks, vaulted into the top three, knocking Detroit from fourth to sixth.
And last year, in the cruelest twist, the Wings fell from first to fourth as the Rangers — a team that actually was part of the NHL’s expanded playoff field — landed the No. 1 overall pick and the rights to draft Lafreniere. Los Angeles also moved up in that two-part draft lottery, which almost felt like it was designed to torture Detroiters.
All told, 10 teams have moved up in the lottery in the last five years. The Wings, meanwhile, have fallen a combined eight spots.
And while it’s difficult at this point to identify many players — outside of Lafreniere — who the Wings have truly missed out on, they certainly haven’t caught the kind of breaks that have helped jump-start a rebuild like the Rangers or Devils have with the likes of Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier.
Yzerman’s aware of all that, obviously. He’s just not going to dwell on it. Is it easier to get ahead if you’re fortunate enough to land a top-three pick? Sure. Only two teams in the last 50 years — Colorado (2001), Calgary (1989) — have won the Cup without one on their roster. But can you build a contender even if you don’t?
“For sure,” Yzerman said. “We’re gonna do the best we can. If the plan is to be really bad and get a first or second pick, it’s hard to get. As Red Wing fans, we all sit here and watch the last five years — we haven’t been able to get a top-three pick.
“But we’ll find a way. … It does happen. We’ll build a good team and we’ll figure out a way. We’ll get a superstar in the draft somewhere.”