Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings avoid gambling in 2021 NHL draft by stacking the deck

Detroit Free Press

Ah, the second day of the NHL draft. The day when players with names like Cameron Whynot and Conner Roulette get picked.

Hey, if the Vancouver Canucks drafted Troy Gamble 36 years ago, why couldn’t the Calgary Flames draft Whynot in the second round Saturday, or the Dallas Stars spin the wheel on Roulette in the fourth round?

After all, uncertainty was the hallmark of this NHL draft. COVID-19 either paused, curbed or canceled most of the hockey world’s junior and developmental leagues.

Any draft any year brings plenty of uncertainty. But Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman warned us a few days ago that the pandemic injected an extra level of doubt into this year’s affair, especially with teams scouting the globe to project how an 18-year-old will develop in three or four years.

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So instead of watching that little ball plink around on the roulette wheel and hoping for the best, Yzerman tipped the odds in his favor. He decided to stack the deck by picking players with ties to the organization.

We got a hint of that in the first round, when the Wings used the No. 6 overall pick on Simon Edvinsson, a defenseman and Frolunda teammate of Lucas Raymond’s in the Swedish Hockey League. Raymond was the Wings’ No. 4 overall pick last year.

In the fifth round, the Wings drafted Frolunda center Liam Nilsson, who watched the draft with his best friend by his side. You guessed it: Edvinsson.

That made the third straight year the Wings drafted at least two players from Frolunda, which must be as good at producing hockey talent as it is at making pickled herring and kroppkakor just the way Wings scouts like it.

Yzerman used his second-round pick on defenseman Shai Buium, a 6-foot-3 left shot  who grew up in San Diego with no discernible ties to the Wings. With his next pick, though, he drafted Carter Mazur, a left wing from Jackson who played for the Little Caesars program, in the third round.

Mazur and Buium happen to be freshman roommates at the University of Denver. They didn’t even bother with congratulatory texts since they’re hotel neighbors this week for the world junior summer showcase in Plymouth.

On and on this went.

Fourth-round pick Red Savage, a center and the son of longtime NHLer Brian Savage, lives in Northville and has close ties to the son of Wings assistant GM Kris Draper.

Defenseman Oscar Plandowski was a fifth-round pick. His father, Darryl, is the Arizona Coyotes’ director of amateur scouting and worked for a decade with Yzerman as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s assistant director of amateur scouting.

In one breath, Yzerman tried to deny that having ties or strong familiarity with players influenced his pick. He tried to play the “best player available” card as much as he could.

“You like to have as much information on all the kids you can to make the best decision possible,” he said. “It doesn’t really come down to so much, you know, ‘Kris knows this guys, therefore I’m drafting him.’ We’re obviously looking at who’s the best player at that spot, what’s the right pick.”

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And in the next breath, Yzerman admitted the truth about his strong ties to Plandowski.

“I met Oscar when he was a little boy,” he said. “I haven’t seen him play. I’ve seen video of him playing.”

That video, Yzerman’s ties to his father and Plandowski’s apparent fit as a puck-moving, right shot with some size all added up to, you guessed it, the best player available.

Most GMs are cagey about their strategy, so I don’t fault Yzerman for not showing all his cards. But when it came to making his decisions, Yzerman showed conviction through his willingness to make some moves, even if it cost him several draft picks. He started with 12 draft picks, but after two pre-draft trades and three trades during the draft, he wound up with eight picks.

“Honestly, I hate giving up draft picks,” he said. “I feel every draft pick, regardless of a first-rounder or seventh-rounder, is hope. It’s hope for Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk or Sergei Fedorov or Nicklas Lidstrom or you name it, regardless of the pick.”

And yet, none of Yzerman’s trades or picks felt like much of a reach. More importantly, none of his picks felt like a gamble.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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