The biggest decision of Steve Yzerman’s tenure as general manager of the Detroit Red Wings is looming. It’s a decision that could change the trajectory of the franchise.
If Yzerman hires the right coach, we might see another Stanley Cup parade on Woodward within a few years. If he doesn’t and the new coach is gone after a couple seasons, the Wings’ rebuild — now in its fifth year — will stall as it limps closer to a decade.
Then Yzerman will find himself in deep trouble. If he swings and misses on this hire, he’ll likely only get one more chance to hire a coach. And then probably another chance after that. Because the truth is Saint Stevie has done enough on the ice in Detroit and in the front office in Tampa that it’s hard to imagine the citizens of Hockeytown ever launching a recall vote.
Yzerman seems to know this. I’ve watched a lot of Detroit GMs address reporters over the years, and I’ve never sensed more calm and self-assuredness from any of them like I have from Yzerman. At the end of every season, reporters ask Yzerman about the status of the rebuild. And at the end of every season, Yzerman shoots down the idea of timetables and expectations.
“I think it’ll be easier for me to be patient than it will be for yourself,” he told reporters Monday. “Like you’re going to want to see results, you’re going to want to see it. I understand it.
“For me, I’ve got to show some improvement. I can’t sit here forever saying, ‘Hey, be patient, everybody. We’re going to get there, we’re going to get there.’”
As much as it bothers this impatient sportswriter who faces hourly deadlines, or most Wings fans who are wondering when they can buy their playoff tickets, Yzerman is right. He has to be patient with a developing roster. There’s no quick fix to this thing. There aren’t one or two key free-agent signings who will put the Wings over the top in one season.
Yzerman has learned the lesson of patience in 11 seasons as an NHL GM and has understood the price that comes with forcing a trade or a signing.
“The danger becomes you start to get maybe impatient, I don’t know, desperate?” he said. “I’m not sure what the right word is. And then you do something stupid. And I don’t need any help doing anything stupid. Like I’ll probably do it without any (help).”
Many fans might say he proved himself capable of such folly last May, when he decided to keep coach Jeff Blashill, everyone’s favorite punching bag in Detroit after Matt Patricia and Al Avila and the Ford family — OK, we have so many punching bags in Detroit that even Joe Louis’ fists would get worn out.
Keeping Blashill last year because it felt like a stall. But he proved Yzerman right by developing good young talent like Moritz Seider, Lucas Raymond and Michael Rasmussen that helped make the team better for the first half of the season until depth problems and injuries led to a regression on defense that doomed the team’s flirtation with the playoffs.
Blashill proved this season, as well as the past seven, that he was good enough to nudge the team forward a little but wasn’t capable of carrying considerable weight of a full rebuild across the finish line.
“I was comfortable with the decision,” Yzerman said of keeping Blashill last year. “I’ve had a chance to reflect on that the past two weeks. And I’m like, you know what? I had my reasons for making that decision last year and I look back on them or reflect on them and I’m totally comfortable with that decision that I made.”
What did I say about self-assuredness?
It’s understandable. Yzerman has earned the right. Not just because he’s a deity in Detroit for resurrecting a franchise and leading it to three Cups, but mostly because of his track record in Tampa, where he helped build a team that reached the Cup finals and then won it twice.
And it all started with the wrong decision, when he hired his first coach, Guy Boucher, who was 38, had not been an NHL assistant and didn’t know Yzerman, but looked like the right guy when he took the Lightning to the conference finals his first season.
Boucher’s was gone midway through his third season, replaced by Jon Cooper, who also had not been an NHL assistant but at least coached the Lightning’s AHL team and knew Yzerman. Cooper was a grand-slam hire, taking the Bolts to the Cup finals in his second full season and winning the Cup the past two seasons.
I asked Yzerman on Monday what he learned about the processes that led him to hire Boucher and Cooper.
“I found it’s harder to hire someone that you don’t know or you haven’t worked with,” he said, “because it’s a little bit of an educated guess.”
Yzerman said he also learned not to limit himself to specific criteria.
“Don’t say he has to have had head-coaching experience,” he said. “Don’t say he has to have coached in the NHL.”
What was unsaid, but implied, was Yzerman’s preference for having a previous connection with his next coach. So if you want to pencil in Lane Lambert as the leading candidate, I won’t stop you. Yzerman’s former roommate at their Detroit riverfront apartment also wouldn’t come with the steep price tag of Cup-winning coaches like John Tortorella or Joel Quenneville.
Yzerman wouldn’t say owner Chris Ilitch has given him a blank check, but it sounds like a big contract won’t be a big problem if he wants to hire a big-time name.
“I think it’s safe to say Chris, he wants to win, he wants to do things the right way and is fully supportive,” Yzerman said. “And he and the Red Wing organization are prepared to do whatever they have to do, whatever he has to do, for us to win.
“We’re not going be restricted by anything. Having said that, I don’t have the green light to go out and be foolish, either.”
Maybe Yzerman will apply the lessons he learned in Tampa and with Blashill and hit another one out of the park with this coaching hire. Or maybe Saint Stevie will swing and miss this time, too. No one knows anything other than the clock’s ticking on the Captain’s decision. And if he gets it wrong, he’ll only have another seven or eight years before he’s exhausted everyone’s patience.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.