When Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman took over, he explained that he would be evaluating first and then determining his direction after. The evaluation–and Yzerman’s presence in the building, didn’t go unnoticed by players. Said Dylan Larkin via the Detroit Free Press’s Helene St. James:
“His presence is felt every day in our locker room and it’s a good thing,” Dylan Larkin said. “It’s holding guys accountable. Everyone wants to impress him, because he’s our new GM. It’s been good for our team.”
It wasn’t hard for anyone to see–let alone Yzerman–that the 2019-2020 Red Wings were going to struggle. But just how badly they struggled was what ended up being so shocking.
The team absolutely cratered and most point to this season as the absolute bottom of the rebuild. It certainly looked like Yzerman let the team do what Holland never would—bottom out without adding any band-aids.
He ripped the remaining bandages off and the rebuild officially began. But before the puck dropped, Yzerman conducted his first draft–and he certainly did it with fireworks. This article will examine the 2019 NHL Draft, Yzerman’s free agency signings, the trades he made, and a look at the season as well. It will also look at how this season–and many of the moves he made–set Detroit up for where they’re at now.
Red Wings 2019 NHL Draft
C’mon, do I even have to write who he picked at #6 overall? The crowd reaction, along with Moritz Seider’s signaled that Yzerman was ready to start building his way.
Fans were absolutely stunned by the pick–with a number of very talented forwards available at the Wings choosing. Yzerman did say to reporters later that he sought to trade back but he was sure Seider wouldn’t be there for him to take. So he took who he and his scouts thought was the best player available–a theme that would the common thread for his drafting in Detroit.
Here’s a look at Yzerman’s first draft. Also emphasized in italics are picks acquired through trades.
- Round 1 Pick 6: Moritz Seider – Defenseman
- Round 2 Pick 35: Antti Tuomisto – Defenseman
- Round 2 Pick 51: Robert Mastrosimone – Left Wing – From Vegas
- Round 2 Pick 60: Albert Johansson – Defenseman – From San Jose
- Round 3 Pick 66: Albin Grewe – Right Wing
- Round 4 Pick 97: Ethan Phillips – Center
- Round 5 Pick 128: Cooper Moore – Defenseman
- Round 6 Pick 159: Elmer Soderblum – Right Wing
- Round 6 Pick 177: Gustav Bergland – Defenseman From Buffalo
- Round 7 Pick 190: Kirill Tyutyavev – Left Wing
- Round 7 Pick 191: Carter Gylander – Goalie – From Buffalo
Defense had been a sore spot for Detroit its pipeline–not only were they light on them in the minors but the development of those defensemen had been lacking as well. The likes of Ryan Sproul, Robbie Russo, and Xavier Ouellet were either not able to make the leap (Sproul and Russo) or play a more prominent role in the NHL (Ouellet). Dennis Cholowski would break into the roster in 2019 but his success would be short-lived. It would end with his selection to Seattle in the Expansion Draft. As it stands to the current roster, Filip Hronek remains one of the few–if not only–defenseman to be drafted in the past decade and play a strong role in the NHL.
Yzerman’s first draft was a bold declaration that he would do things his way and the choice to take Seider was the first indication. Of those picks, Seider seems NHL ready and may be on the roster this season when all is said and done.
Red Wings 2019 Free Agency
Until about 2018, free agency was a vehicle for Detroit to fill gaps and try to get over the hump for a playoff push. By the trade deadline of 2018, Ken Holland knew it wasn’t sustainable. Signings were to make the team better, but to acquire possible assets to flip at the trade deadline (or sooner).
Yzerman not only took this approach, but refused to overpay and hand out anything in the way of longer term. Here were the free agent signings Yzerman made in his first offseason (not counting Oliwer Kaski, who he signed prior to July 1):
- Valtteri Fippula – two-year, $6M ($3M AAV)
- Patrik Nemeth – two-year, $6M ($3M AAV)
- Calvin Pickard – two-year, $1.5M (750k AAV)
That’s all folks. Of these three signings and how they affect the current team, Yzerman would flip Nemeth before the 2021 trade deadline. Flippula has yet to re-sign (and seems likely to retire) and Pickard was extended for another season.
Martin Frk would sign elsewhere as would Luke Witkowski (but guess who’s back again?) and Niklas Kronwall would call it a career and help the team with development. Free agency would be the first big sign that Yzerman was about to allow nature take its course with the 2019-20 Detroit Red Wings squad.
Red Wings 2019-20 Season
There is little I can write that quantifies or qualifies just how tough of a season this was. Yzerman truly let everything be what it was, and the results, well, were expected and even worse than the low expectations set forth.
But in the one early positive, Detroit started out 3-1. Maybe, some thought, the bump from Yzerman’s hiring would extend onto the ice, too.
Then reality set in. The Red Wings would lose eight straight, beat Ken Holland’s Oilers, and then lose another three straight. After a three game winning streak to start out November, Detroit would drop twelve straight including a 6-0 clunker to Toronto. Long losing streaks were more the rule than the exception during the season.
Blowout losses were also a norm and in all the years I can remember living and dying with Red Wings hockey, I don’t ever remember a hockey season being as tough to watch. But it was a necessary part of the rebuild, allowing Yzerman and his front office to see what they had and to properly assess who to keep, and who to jettison.
Here it is from a statistical perspective:
- Detroit ranked last in the league in goals scored and goals against.
- The team’s CF% was a paltry 44.35%, also last in the league via evolving-hockey. GF/60? 1.61. GA/60 was 2.98. On the power play, the GF/60 was 4.7 while the xGF% was 81.71%. While the eye test saw the Wings getting pummeled, the math supported it with metrics that made it even more painful.
- Larkin, who led all scorers the previous season with 73 points (31-42) saw a 20 point drop and didn’t reach 20 goals. But his GAR actually improved from 7.5 to 11.4. His 5v5 points production saw only a 5 point drop–showing one of the more glaring weaknesses was the power play, something that would haunt them later, too.
- The Red Wings .275 points percentage was the worst in the Cap Era. (39 out of a possible 142)
- Let’s not even talk about how the draft lottery went. It was the final kick to the head in what was an utterly miserable season.
There was also this:
Poor Abby. A rough season indeed.
Red Wings 2020 Trades
While free agency was quiet, Yzerman was busy on the phones. There weren’t any blockbusters, but he certainly was trying to see at times who would stick and who wouldn’t. Yzerman also was the benefactor of a couple lopsided deals in his favor. Here’s how they looked and players in bold show they’re still with the organization today:
- Traded a 2020 4th round pick to Tampa Bay for forward Adam Erne
- Traded David Pope to Vancouver for defenseman Alex Biega
- Traded Alec Regula to Chicago for forward Brendan Perlini
- Traded Jacob De La Rose to St. Louis for forward Robby Fabbri
- Traded Vili Saarijarvi to Arizona for goalie Eric Comrie
- Traded Oliwer Kaski to Carolina for defenseman Kyle Wood
- Traded Mike Green to Edmonton for forward Kyle Brodziak and a 2020 4th round pick
- Traded Andreas Athanasiou to Edmonton for Sam Gagner and 2019 and 2020 2nd round picks
Trades that Worked
The Fabbri trade paid immediate dividends and De La Rose wouldn’t make much of an impact in St. Louis. Gagner continues to play for Detroit, signing subsequent one-year deals in 2020 and then again this offseason. Erne will be signed soon enough, and enjoyed a career high in goals with 11 this past season.
In related news, he absolutely fleeced Holland. Green played all of three games in an Edmonton sweater before he was shelved for the season (and then retired) while Athanasiou wouldn’t even be tendered an offer by Holland, opting to sign with the Kings instead.
Trades that Didn’t Work
Yzerman made a handful of trades that didn’t generate anything, while being downright confusing. He signed Kaski only to deal him away for Wood, who never came to Detroit and signed elsewhere in the offseason. Perlini found himself in Blashill line blender before being a healthy scratch. He also didn’t re-sign and wasn’t even tendered an offer. Comrie was placed on waivers and then picked up by Winnipeg. Not every trade will work out and in a season where Yzerman was looking to just change the flow of things, fans took the good with the bad.
The Long View of the 2019-20 Season
The Covid-19 pandemic put an end to the Red Wings season before muddling the playoffs, the draft, and then free agency for the rest of the league. Everything was pushed back including the draft lottery, which was won by New York, only infuriating an already irascible fanbase in Detroit.
In spite of the pain, the 2019-20 was a necessary evil, finally staring into the abyss that had been hockey in Detroit and recognizing that it was no longer the proud franchise it had once been. It had been sputtering along for some time, and Yzerman put an end to it by letting the team bottom out. He would trade players that either didn’t have a future beyond the season (Green) or didn’t fit into his long term vision (Athanasiou).
More answers came to light as the Wings waited through a longer than normal offseason. Gagner would emerge as a locker room presence Yzerman wanted in the fold through the difficult journey. Time and patience would run out on Mantha, who would be dealt the next season. Larkin’s willingness to answer the same question every night while giving everything he had on and off the ice would get the C on his sweater down the road.
If there was anything that really stood out, it was that Yzerman was going to do what it took to move the team forward. It didn’t matter if there was a letter on the sweater, changes would be made if it made the team better.
Part Three will look at the most recent season and the 2020 draft, free agent signings, and then trades during the offseason and season.