There’s an old saying in golf that’s often attributed to Arnold Palmer: “It’s a funny thing, the more I practice, the luckier I get.”
Steve Yzerman is a golfer, so maybe he’s familiar with it. But even if he isn’t, Yzerman should have an inherent understanding of the difference between fortunate happenstance and achievement developed through rigorous effort.
Because Yzerman is definitely going to need some of the latter in this year’s NHL draft.
The Detroit Red Wings general manager didn’t get much in the way of the former —some of that good, old-fashioned dumb luck — during Wednesday’s NHL draft lottery, when his team failed to move up (or down) and got the sixth overall pick.
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“We didn’t go backwards,” he said after the Wings did exactly that in the past four lotteries.
The Buffalo Sabres continued to ride their lucky streak and got the No. 1 overall pick for the second time in four years. However, it’s important to remember most Sabres fans have to live in Buffalo and be known as Buffalonians, so let’s just call it even.
Meanwhile, in the tropical paradise that is Detroit, Yzerman spoke repeatedly about how luck in the draft is as unpredictable as a square puck bouncing on a sheet of ice during an earthquake.
“When somebody will ask, ‘When are you going to make playoffs, what’s your timeline here or there?’ ” he said. “I simply can’t give one because it’s a guess.
“ … So we kind of keep (sticking) with the method, our methodical approach. We continue to draft and hopefully we get really lucky one year and we get four or five players or three players and that speeds it up a little bit. But unfortunately it does take a long time, and if you get it done quicker you were luckier than most.”
Of course, the Wings were lucky in the draft — 32 years ago. In 1989, they selected Nicklas Lidstrom in the third round, Sergei Fedorov in the fourth round and Vladimir Konstantinov in the 11th round. But even then it took them six years to make it to the Stanley Cup Final and another two years to win the Cup.
In 1990, they drafted Keith Primeau at No. 3 overall and Slava Kozlov in the third round. (Primeau was the only top-six pick for the Wings between taking Joe Murphy No. 1 overall in 1986 and Filip Zadina No. 6 in 2018.) The next year, Martin Lapointe (No. 10 overall) and Chris Osgood (third round). Then Darren McCarty in the second round in 1992.
This means it can’t just be about good luck and bad luck and the sixth overall pick for Yzerman and the Wings. It has to be about the entire draft this year, and next year and every year after that. Not only does Yzerman know this, but he’s confident he doesn’t have to rely on the randomness of a lottery gifting him a top-two pick in order to win a championship.
“For sure, for sure,” he said. “We’re going to 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 Wings fans, we all sit here and have watched the last five years and we haven’t been able to get a top-three pick.
“… We’ll build a good team and we’ll figure out a way. We’ll get a superstar along the way in the draft somewhere.”
Yes, superstars are great, and Michigan’s Owen Power magically falling to the Wings would be awesome. Fans in Detroit would rejoice (almost as much as headline writers in Detroit).
But Yzerman knows that what he really needs now is good players everywhere on the ice. And since it takes draft picks a few years to make it to the NHL, it’s hard to say what kind of players the Wings will most need at that time.
“We do need help in every area,” he said. “The reality is whoever we pick (this year), in one, two three years, when they’re ready to play, things can change.
“So our philosophy or plan would be to pick the best prospect on the board. I don’t think we’re in a position with the sixth pick to say, ‘Oh, we definitely need this position.’ … Our intention will be to pick the best prospect we think is available when we pick sixth.”
Since he couldn’t rely on the vagaries of ping-pong balls floating around inside an air fryer, Yzerman decided to make his own luck. Like a crafty gambler, he walked up to the blackjack table, shot his cuffs and stacked the deck — in a polite Canadian way, of course — by piling up a league-high 12 picks in this year’s draft, with seven in the first three rounds.
If those stupid plastic balls weren’t going to improve his chances of landing a star, Yzerman would do it himself.
And then something happened. Yzerman talked about luck one last time when someone asked if it would be harder to find good players outside of the first round this year because of all the interruptions the coronavirus pandemic caused throughout junior hockey. But it didn’t feel like he was talking about luck at all. It felt like he was explaining the exact plan he might have for this year’s draft, as though he’s been practicing it for a while.
“I think you can look at it two ways,” he said. “It’s potentially harder to find people. Or you might find people that didn’t play much that maybe you saw a year ago that one of our scouts saw a year ago and says, ‘Hey, I’d really like to pick this player.’ So you can look at it two ways: You’re going to get lucky or you’re going to get unlucky.
“I do think there’ll be some really good players that are picked later in the draft. Maybe they didn’t play at all, maybe they played a little bit or they played in a men’s league in Europe and hardly got on the ice and you’re going to wake up in three years and go, ‘Wow, I had no idea this guy was going to be this good.’ ”
With any luck, we might all wake up in three years and say the same thing about the Wings’ GM.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.