Detroit Red Wings’ Steve Yzerman: ‘We’re trying to build a Stanley Cup contender’
Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman. July 22, 2021.
Helene St. James, Detroit Free Press
We’re finally here. It’s time for the first round of the NHL entry draft tonight, when Detroit Red Wings general manager and Hockeytown savior Steve Yzerman gets his third crack at rescuing us from rebuild purgatory.
And boy, do we need a savior. So please, Saint Steve, take out your old hockey stick, use it like a talisman and exorcise the demons of past draft failures to bring us excellent players and hope.
Wave that stick like a wand as you perform your drafting wizardry. Swing it like a bat and hit it out of the park. You don’t have to bat a thousand on all 10 of your picks. If you’re only perfect on eight or nine them, that will do nicely.
Everyone knows Yzerman is capable of the kind of greatness that inspires and lifts a franchise to the highest levels. As a player, he was the cornerstone that transformed the “Dead Things” into three-time Stanley Cup champions. As a general manager with Tampa Bay, he turned another struggling franchise into a championship contender.
He even helped rename both cities. He turned the Motor City into Hockeytown. He made Tampa Bay, with a little assist from Tom Brady, into Champa Bay.
Yzerman never got to celebrate or get the proper amount of credit for the Lightning’s two straight Stanley Cups, but his fingerprints are all over those championships. He hired coach Jon Cooper and current GM Julien BriseBois. He drafted goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy 19th overall in 2012 and watched him pitch five straight shutouts on his way to the Conn Smythe Trophy two weeks ago. He found great draft value by selecting amazing players like Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point in the second and third rounds, respectively.
Of course, Tampa isn’t Detroit. The circumstances were entirely different when Yzerman took over running each team. The Lightning already had two outstanding top-two picks in the organization — Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman — when Yzerman was hired in May 2010 and that helped Tampa end a three-year playoff drought and reach the conference finals his first season.
When Yzerman became the Wings’ GM in April 2019, his only two top-10 picks in the system were Filip Zadina and Michael Rasmussen, neither of whom were as highly rated or as promising as Stamkos and Hedman. Not surprisingly, the Wings have been one of the NHL’s worst teams the past two seasons.
That’s been the theme of Yzerman’s tenure and the Wings’ fortunes since he returned to Detroit. The cupboard isn’t exactly bare, but it sure isn’t bursting with loads of promise. Dylan Larkin is the only player every other NHL team would immediately put on its roster. Defenseman Moritz Seider, the sixth overall pick in 2019, is expected to do big things — when he gets here.
And that brings us to the draft, and I mean the entire draft and all 10 picks the Wings hold. All the attention will be centered around their first pick, sixth overall. That’s understandable, but it probably won’t tell us much about where the Wings will be in three or four years.
That’s because the NHL draft is so much more than that because one player, even an elite top prospect, can’t single-handedly turn around a team’s fortunes. Go ask Connor McDavid. Sure, the 2015 No. 1 overall pick is one of the NHL’s most talented players, but he also has yet to win a playoff series with Edmonton.
Yzerman has 10 picks in his pocket, down from 11 after he picked the Carolina Hurricanes’ pockets and stole — I mean acquired — 25-year-old goalie and Calder Trophy candidate Alex Nedeljkovic for a third-round pick and rights to Jonathan Bernier. Fans in Raleigh were fuming on Twitter about the trade, only minutes after learning they have an NHL team.
Does that take the top-rated goalie in draft, Jesper Wallstedt, out of the mix when the Wings pick sixth, especially because they need so much help offensively? Yzerman told reporters Thursday that’s not necessarily the case.
“We’re going to pick what we think is the best prospect, who has the most potential, with the sixth pick regardless of position,” Yzerman said in a conference call. “Where we’re at and where we’re picking and the age of the kids it’s too hard to really, I think, to draft for a specific need.”
Wallstedt is 18 years old. So is Michigan defenseman Owen Power, the presumptive top pick. Michigan forward Matthew Beniers is also 18. Yzerman made a great point by saying that, unlike in the NFL or the NBA, no one knows where these prospects will end up in a few years.
Because that’s all any of them are at this point. Prospects. And those prospects are part of a long-term project that Yzerman reiterated for the umpteenth time Thursday and directly correlated to acquiring Nedeljkovic in order to help the rebuild now and in the future.
“Ultimately our goal is to build a playoff team, a Stanley Cup contender,” he said. “That hasn’t changed. In the interim, we’re trying give some of our younger players, surround them with a more competitive team.”
So which player should the Wings draft sixth overall? That’s an easy answer. It’s the player who carries the most promise and predictability in a draft class formed by the pandemic that Yzerman called “the most unpredictable of generally a very unpredictable process.”
If Power falls a couple spots, trade up. If Beniers or his U-M teammate Kent Johnson, 18, are there, don’t hesitate. If Wallstedt is available, take him as a 6-foot-3 prototype who could be ready just as Nedeljkovic’s contract is expiring.
There’s no clear right answer. But the good news is that there’s no clear wrong answer, either. We’ll probably have to spend a little more time in hockey purgatory, no matter what happens Friday night. But at least we should have a little more hope while we contemplate Yzerman’s decisions.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.