What 3 years in charge of Detroit Red Wings shows about GM Steve Yzerman’s plan

Detroit Free Press

It has been three years since Yzerman was introduced as general manager of the Detroit Red Wings on a date fortuitous for the man whose No. 19 hangs from the rafters: April 19, 2019. It was Good Friday and a good Friday, with the return of the man synonymous with the revival of the Red Wings four decades after their first dynasty. Yzerman took command of a rebuild that was just beginning, and he did so with high demands on himself.

“I know where the organization is at,” Yzerman said at the time. “It’s a chance to rebuild a team.

“I don’t want to fail.”

[ HOW IT WAS: Steve Yzerman’s to-do list in taking charge of Red Wings’ rebuild ]

The Wings are a better team than when Yzerman returned from nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and in recognition of Tuesday’s anniversary, here are 19 thoughts on how Yzerman has resurrected the franchise.

German engineering

No player has had more of an impact in a shorter amount of time than Moritz Seider, Yzerman’s first pick as Wings GM. Seider, who turned 21 on April 6, joined the lineup this season after spending 2020-21 in Sweden, where he established himself as an elite defenseman. Seider looks like a core piece to build around for the next decade, and if somehow he doesn’t win rookie of the year, he can console himself knowing Yzerman didn’t either.

Ray of light

Yzerman chose well again with his first-round pick in 2020, after what was a farce of a draft lottery. The Wings had the ignominy of being the only team eliminated from the playoffs when the NHL shuttered March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as they had locked into last place with a loss on March 10. But the NHL decided that the eight losers of a play-in round should also have a chance at drafting first, and so the New York Rangers went from the playoff bubble to winning the lottery, and the Wings went from 31st place to choosing fourth. Lucas Raymond, though, makes up for that, because he came in this season and showed right away he’s a top-line winger.

Famished for firsts

That’s 2-for-2 for Yzerman, with 2021 first-round Simon Edvinsson looking like he’ll make it 3-for-3. It’s in such contrast to how the Wings had fared with first-round picks under former GM Ken Holland: Forward Evgeny Svechnikov (2015) wasn’t re-signed, and defenseman Dennis Cholowski (2016) was given away in the expansion draft. That’s two high picks gone with nothing in return. Michael Rasmussen (No. 9 in 2017) looks like he’ll be a solid third-line center but neither he nor Filip Zadina (No. 6 in 2018) have lived up to being top-10 picks.

His guys

Frans Nielsen noted at training camp in 2019 that most of the players knew they “were not Yzerman’s guys,” meaning he had inherited them. Indeed, Nielsen was bought out during the 2021 offseason. But Yzerman’s boldness was on better display in the fall of 2020, when he bought out Justin Abdelkader. Abdelkader’s effectiveness waned after Pavel Datsyuk left in 2016, but in 2020, there were still three years left on the contract. Buying it out will count against the salary cap through 2025-26, but it was worth it to open up a roster spot.

Observe and evaluate

Yzerman said upon arrival that he wanted to spend time observing. By the 2020 trade deadline, he’d seen enough of underperforming forward Andreas Athanasiou and traded the former 30-goal scorer to the Edmonton Oilers for two second-round picks and veteran forward Sam Gagner. The 2020 pick indirectly yielded prospect Theodor Niederbach, and the 2021 pick was used to acquire veteran defenseman Nick Leddy.

Mo better move

A bolder move followed at the 2021 deadline, when Yzerman unloaded Anthony Mantha, five months after signing him to an extension. Mantha at times played like a power forward, but too many times he lacked assertiveness. Yzerman managed to not only get a first-round and second-round pick, he also acquired a player in Jakub Vrána who upgraded the scoring lost with Mantha’s departure. Vrana is the best scorer the Wings have had since Datsyuk, and it was a significant blow that Vrana missed the first 56 games this season recovering from shoulder surgery.

Sunny forecast

Yzerman looks like he made another good trade at the 2022 deadline. When extension talks with Leddy fizzled, Yzerman dealt him for Oskar Sundqvist, a big, mean forward with championship experience, and Jake Walman, a promising young defenseman with something to prove. There was no risk involved — Sundqvist is signed through next season, Walman is a pending restricted free agent and the deal also netted Yzerman a second-round pick — so essentially, he recouped the price he paid for Leddy, and then some.

MORE: How Sundqvist, Walman earned time on Detroit Red Wings’ power play

Return on investment

The trade with the best return on investment happened in November 2019. That’s when Yzerman sent Jacob de la Rose to the St. Louis Blues for Robby Fabbri. Fabbrim, a former first-round pick, needed an opportunity to establish himself after two knee injuries, and de la Rose was a waiver-wire pickup who wasn’t working out. Fabbri must work on his defense, but he has provided an offensive boost and has fit in so well he’s been re-signed twice. Fabbri had 17 goals in 56 games before a knee injury sidelined him in March.

Blueline special

Seider has been the most dramatic makeover of the defense corps, but adding Marc Staal was a sublime move. The Rangers were in a cap crunch, and in agreeing to take on his contract, Yzerman improved both the present (adding a savvy veteran and leader) and the future (a second-round pick). Staal was acquired for “future considerations,” which usually is a conditional draft pick. Staal has worked out so well, he may be re-signed for a second time this summer.

Net asset

Yzerman overhauled the goaltending, too, replacing Jimmy Howard with Thomas Greiss and Jonathan Bernier with Alex Nedeljkovic. Nedeljkovic was a finalist for the cAlder Trophy in 2021, but the Carolina Hurricanes balked at re-signing him as a restricted free agent; the Wings acquired Nedeljkovic for a third-round pick and the rights to Bernier (who later signed with New Jersey). Nedeljkovic posted a 3.27 goals-against average and .903 save percentage through 54 appearances (48 starts), a workload that’s more than double the 23 games he played last season. He has had rough patches, but overall he has been solid playing behind a team that averages nearly 34 shots allowed per game.

[ MOTIVATED GUY IN NET: Why Alex Nedeljkovic still feels he has something to prove to Red Wings ]

Net future

Yzerman used the first-round pick from the Mantha trade and the second-round pick from the Staal trade to strengthen the Wings’ future goaltending, packaging the picks at the 2021 draft to move up to No. 15 and select 6-foot-6 Sebastian Cossa. Time will tell if that was a better choice than passing on fellow big goalie Mads Søgaard in the 2019 draft, but Cossa is the most promising Wings goaltending prospect in years.

NEW GUY IN NET: Why Magnus Hellberg couldn’t pass up tiny window of opportunity with Red Wings

Fiscal flexibility

Yzerman has eschewed lengthy contracts; the longest he has given out was four years, to Mantha. Fabbri, Vrana and Filip Hronek have received three-year deals. It’ll be interesting to see what Yzerman does this summer with Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi, who are eligible to become unrestricted free agents in 2023. But Yzerman has signaled he’d rather pay a little more and keep the term down than vice versa.

Naming a captain

When Yzerman took over, the Wings were without a captain. Henrik Zetterberg retired before the 2018-19 season, and the thinking within the organization was to wait a year before bestowing the “C” on Dylan Larkin, who was then 22. Yzerman observed for a season and came to the same conclusion: Larkin was the right guy to be named the 36th captain in team history. As expected as it was, it was a meaningful endorsement for Larkin to be named captain by The Captain.

Perfect hire

It made all the sense in the world for Yzerman to hire Nicklas Lidström as vice president of hockey operations. The two won three Cups together as players, and Lidström gives the Wings another set of eyes based in Sweden. Lidström is famous in Sweden also for winning gold at the Olympics and World Championship; his input carries weight with prospects and pros.

His homecoming

The path to Yzerman’s return began when Yzerman announced before the 2018-19 season that he was stepping back in his role as Lightning GM. “When Steve Yzerman stepped down in Tampa Bay, I worked with Chris Ilitch and ultimately I’m thrilled that the last move that I made as general manager of the Detroit Red Wings was to step aside and hand the keys to Steve Yzerman,” Holland told the Free Press in May 2019.  The Wings just had to wait until the Bolts were done playing, which happened April 16 when they were swept in the first round of the playoffs.

Inheriting a coach

Holland’s second-to-last move was to give Jeff Blashill a two-year extension, which was announced April 2. It would have cost the Wings financially if Yzerman wanted someone different, but he didn’t. Yzerman endorsed Blashill at the time and pointed to the lack of a quality roster when the Wings endured a 17-49-5 record in 2019-20. Yzerman endorsed Blashill again at the 2021 trade deadline.

Bench decision

Through all the rough stretches the Wings have endured, Yzerman’s decision not to making a coaching change sends the message that the whole team is responsible for how it performs. The players aren’t kids — they’re men who are well compensated for the job they’re expected to do. But it has also been six years of being eliminated from playoff contention, and this could well be the spring Yzerman decides to bring in a new head coach.

Challenging task

Yzerman wants to build the Wings into a Stanley Cup champion. He knows firsthand from his playing days how challenging that is: Fourteen years passed from when he was drafted in 1983 until he won the Cup in 1997. And that was before the salary cap and before expansion grew the NHL from 26 to 32 teams, and eight years after the 1989 draft that yielded future Hockey Hall of Famers in Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov. It’s a monumental task, and it has already been 14 years since the Cup last came to Detroit.

Hope on the horizon

In three years, Yzerman has rejuvenated an aging roster and shed bad contracts. It’s evident the Wings have far to go because of how they stumbled when games intensified after an encouraging first half this season, but Yzerman has done what he realistically could: Draft well, create flexibility within the salary cap and make trades that improved the team in the present and added assets for the future. There are good young pieces in place, with more on the horizon. Compared to where the Wings were at in April 2019, the future looks promising.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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