Niyo: Yzerman not tipping hand on promoting prospects waiting in the Wings

Detroit News

Losing gets old fast. No one needs to remind Steve Yzerman of that.

Yet even if the losing continues at a similar clip for the Red Wings this season, it should feel a bit different for their general manager. At least they’ll be losing young, relatively speaking.

A year ago, the Red Wings’ opening-night roster was the second-oldest in the league, which is not at all how a rebuild is supposed to look. But with the offseason departures of players like Frans Nielsen, Valtteri Filppula and Darren Helm — just to name a few — the 2021-22 roster will be considerably younger.

Just how young, though, we’re about to find out.

Yzerman’s first draft pick, 2019 first-rounder Moritz Seider, is a lock to make the roster and play top-four minutes on the blue line after an impressive season that saw him earn top defenseman honors in the Swedish Hockey League as a 19-year-old.

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But some of the other young European prospects — namely Swedish forwards Lucas Raymond and Jonatan Berggren — likely are ticketed for Grand Rapids and the American Hockey League this fall.

Then again, if we’re to take Yzerman at his word, anything is possible. And where they start the season is up to them now.

“Our younger players, I’m not purposely leaving them in the minors to marinate or whatnot,” Yzerman said Wednesday on the eve of the Red Wings’ training camp in Traverse City. “When they’re ready to play in the NHL, when they’re better than the players that we have on our team, I’m more than happy to put them in there.”

There’s a “but” that followed that, as you’d expect. And that’s the part that buys any GM cover when it comes to decisions like these and the realities of roster manipulation. Yet it’s also true that a rebuilding team like Detroit naturally feels more freedom to toss the kids out on the ice and let them flail than a team that’s intent on making the playoffs. Yzerman finally has the flexibility to do that here, too, after spending the last few years clearing out some of the bloated veteran contracts he inherited when he took this job nearly 2 ½ years ago.

“But I want them to play well and I want them to play meaningful minutes,” Yzerman said of his team’s top prospects. “I don’t want them playing seven or eight minutes (a night), or in a goaltender’s case once every fifth or sixth game. I just believe they’re better off, in the long run, to play significant minutes. And when they’re ready to do that, I’m not gonna wait an extra year, in our position, to do that.”

So, again, the most likely scenario here is that we’ll see a top line in Grand Rapids that mirrors the one that skated together in the Red Wings’ first game at last week’s prospect tournament in Traverse City, with 2018 first-round pick Joe Veleno centering Raymond and Berggren.

Veleno might have the best shot to crack the lineup heading into camp, based on last season’s spring cameo in Detroit and something Yzerman noted Wednesday when he raved about how physically prepared the 21-year-old is right now. The GM praised his skating and his puck skills, and said Veleno “looked very comfortable” in the tournament, though that’s to be expected in this third go-around there. (He played in 2018 and 2019 as well.)

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But Yzerman also praised his strength and conditioning work, adding of the 6-foot-2 200-pound forward, “He looks like a guy that physically has been in the league seven or eight years now, and that’s gonna bode well for him.”

Starting today — or perhaps this weekend in Berggren’s case, as he’s nursing a minor injury — they’ll all get a chance to make their case in Traverse City, however.

“I mean, of course you want to play in the NHL,” said Raymond, the 2020 first-round pick who is the Wings’ highest-drafted prospect in three decades. “That’s the dream that probably ever kid has that plays hockey. But at the same time, I think for me to play as good as I can, I just need to focus on every practice, every game and not focus on that.”

That’s the right approach, obviously. And as much as everybody loves Raymond, we should all remember he’s a 19-year-old winger who had his first full pro season cut short in Sweden last winter by an elbow injury.

Still, the talented winger flashed some of his potential in the prospect showcase last week, scoring three goals in two games. And he says the smaller ice surface here in North America feels just fine to him.

“It’s a bit different, but it’s fun for sure,” Raymond said after his debut last week. “Personally, I like it. You got a chance to make a play or score whenever you’re in the offensive zone almost. It’s high-paced, you have to think fast, and I like that kind of hockey.”

So, then, what if he has a strong showing in camp and fills up the scoresheet in the eight-game NHL preseason? Well, the top six seems fairly set for head coach Jeff Blashill’s team, with Dylan Larkin and newly-acquired Pius Suter centering a quartet of wingers that includes Tyler Bertuzzi, Jakub Vrana, Filip Zadina and Robby Fabbri. The third line is harder to peg, but the best guess is Michael Rasmussen would center Sam Gagner and Vladislav Namestnikov at this point.

And based on Yzerman’s criteria, Raymond — like Veleno or Berggren —  would have to beat out one of those forwards to earn a roster spot, They’re not making the roster as a fourth-liner or an extra forward.

“They’re young kids, so I have no interest in sitting them in the stands in Detroit,” Yzerman said. “So they’re really gonna have to be in the top 12, and I might go as far as to say the top nine, which is a big ask, you know? Because I want them playing meaningful minutes.”

And that means they’ll have to wait a bit longer, most likely. But at least they’re in position to make it happen, and so are the Wings, finally.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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