During Nicklas Lidstrom’s introductory press availability as the Detroit Red Wings’ new vice president of hockey operations, hockey insider Elliotte Friedman asked general manager (GM) Steve Yzerman the question that was undoubtedly on many people’s minds this season: with the team taking a big step forward this season, has it changed Yzerman’s timeline for the Red Wings’ rebuild at at?
It’s a valid question to ask. After all, with 18 wins this season, the Red Wings are on pace for their most wins since the 2015-16 season, the first of head coach Jeff Blashill’s tenure with the Red Wings and the last season that Detroit made the playoffs. While the Red Wings remain five points out of a playoff spot (they trail the Boston Bruins, who have five games in-hand on the Red Wings) they are also a full six points ahead of the next-closest team in the Eastern Conference (the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have four games in-hand on the Red Wings.) The playoffs, realistically, are a bit of a pipe dream at this point, but there’s a good argument to be made that the Red Wings are essentially the “best of the rest” – the best team that is outside of playoff contention.
That’s a far cry from where the Red Wings have been in recent seasons. Just two seasons ago, they were easily the worst team in the league after managing just 17 wins through 71 games. That was Yzerman’s first season as GM, and that was when his message of patience was the only thing fans had to go off of in terms of how long the pain would last. Last season, as the Red Wings improved to 19 wins through 56 games, his messaging remained the same, staying the course and even re-signing Blashill along the way.
So it should surprise no one that the GM’s message and plan has not changed despite the team’s play this season.
Yzerman didn’t take long to ponder Friedman’s question.
“Elliotte, no, nothing’s really changed. To be honest with you, I don’t really have a timeline,” Yzerman said. “You know, we’re just trying to improve each year, we’re trying to use the draft and hopefully draft well…it’s too unpredictable to tell when some of these players are going to be ready…so no, things haven’t changed.”
Yzerman continued, “We’re pleased with some progress that we’ve made this season…we’re moving more young players into our lineup and we’re (going to) continue with that plan for the time being.”
That “stay the course” mindset has been Yzerman’s M.O. since he took the job as the Red Wings’ GM in the spring of 2019. While he hasn’t been afraid to make a big swing and trade for players like Robby Fabbri and Alex Nedeljkovic, he has mostly stuck to his patient approach to team building. During his tenure, the Red Wings have made 16 trades involving players, with most of them being of the “player for future assets” variety. Also during his tenure, the Red Wings have made 31 picks in the draft. As he said, the team is clearly using the draft as their primary avenue to build up the team in the present and future.
With a strategy that relies on the development of 18-year-olds, patience is key, even in the face of progress in the present. That approach should bleed over into their plans for the 2022 Trade Deadline.
Yzerman Doesn’t Anticipate “Aggressive” Trade Deadline
“The trade deadline is coming up. Depending on where we are in the standings, you know you’ve got to make some decisions. But regardless, I don’t see us…being really aggressive at the trade deadline,” Yzerman said before pivoting to free agency. “In free agency I’ll take the same approach. If there’s a player that can help us and might be with us in a few years and be a contributor in a few years, we’ll try to spend our money and be aggressive when we think it’s appropriate.”
This all jives with Yzerman’s approach to this point. While he was the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, his team missed the playoffs in three out of his eight years at the helm. In years where the Lightning missed the playoffs, he spent the deadline dealing out players and acquiring future assets. At the 2012 Trade Deadline, he was a part of the three-team trade that sent defenseman Kyle Quincey to the Red Wings and sent Detroit’s first round pick in that year’s draft to the Lightning. At the 2017 Trade Deadline, he made the tough decision to trade goaltender Ben Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings in order to make room for Andrei Vasilevskiy, the player he drafted with Detroit’s first pick in 2012. On the other hand, he managed to acquire Ryan McDonagh and JT Miller from the New York Rangers at the 2018 Trade Deadline.
All of this is to illustrate that Yzerman has a history of letting his team tell him what to do at the trade deadline. With the Red Wings hovering around .500 this season, he likely will take a more conservative approach at the deadline because, unlike previous seasons, there is a lot to like about this season’s Red Wings team. While you can never say never when it comes to “Stevie Y”, a blockbuster like last season’s trade that sent Anthony Mantha to the Washington Capitals probably isn’t in the cards this year. Instead, Yzerman will likely look to unload some of the team’s pending unrestricted free agents to acquire more future assets for the team’s rebuild.
Even if the Red Wings are still in the thick of the playoff race by the March 21 trade deadline, Yzerman’s plan is a long-term endeavor; he’s not going to start trading away future assets to add a rental just to maybe earn a one-way trip to a first round exit in the playoffs. If you’re looking for him to make that “big splash” to push the Red Wings forward in the same way that his acquisition of Nedeljkovic has, his comments about free agency should offer a little bit of excitement. But, of course, the free agency period is still almost half a year away. As far as the near-future is concerned, expect the Red Wings to mostly stay the course.
Yzerman’s Plan Chugs Along
“No, nothing has really changed on the aspect of what we are trying to do, and we’re going to stick with it and try to be patient and ultimately, again, just try to make good decisions, whether it be short-term contracts or long-term contracts,” Yzerman finished.
This final thought should seal any ideas about the Red Wings taking shortcuts in their rebuild. Even in the face of the franchise’s most successful season since Yzerman took over, he remains committed to his initial plan. While shortcuts are appealing, they often are only successful when playing Mario Kart. Take a look at the Chicago Blackhawks, a franchise that traded away two first round picks and 21-year-old defenseman Adam Boqvist to acquire defenseman Seth Jones not even a year after they issued a statement informing their fans that they were headed for a rebuild. Rebuilds take time, and one better-than-expected season is not a signal that the rebuild is over.
As for when the free agency period opens up, well, we’ll have to wait and see what kind of short-term and long-term contracts Yzerman hopes to make good decisions about….
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.