Remote control: Detroit Red Wings’ Steve Yzerman liked virtual NHL draft, ready to go live

Detroit Free Press

Steve Yzerman has taken to the virtual life during the pandemic, but is prepared to sit at a crowded table on a noisy floor and add to the Detroit Red Wings‘ bounty (even if he has to sell a watch to do so).

After two years of being held remotely because of the pandemic, the NHL draft returns to normalcy in Montreal, beginning Thursday with Round 1 and continuing Friday with Rounds 2-7. The Wings hold their first pick at No. 8, the lowest they’ve made their first pick since Yzerman was named general manager in 2019.

He has set quite a standard for himself: His first pick in 2019, defenseman Moritz Seider, was named the 2022 Calder Trophy winner; Yzerman’s first pick in 2020, forward Lucas Raymond, finished fourth in 2022 rookie of the year honors, and Yzerman’s first pick in 2021, defenseman Simon Edvinsson, projects to make the team this fall. 

It’s not complicated: “I’m drafting a good prospect, and hopefully that good prospect turns into a good player,” Yzerman said.

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The pressure to make the right pick is commensurate with where the selection is made, and that’s why ‘best available player’ gets thrown around, especially early on.

“We won’t be making a decision at least in the first round based on position,” Yzerman said. “As you go through it and go into later rounds, you look at the current draft and you see if we’ve drafted three defensemen, we may be looking at a different position on our list at some point. But — they’re 17 years old, 18 years old. Where they’re going to be in four or five years, we have no idea. So we’re going to stick to trying to pick the best prospect available when our pick comes up.”

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Shane Wright, Logan Cooley and Juraj Slafkovsky are expected to be the first three picks, but after that, there’s less clarity. The Wings lack a blue chip center prospect and to that end, Cutter Gauthier, Marco Kasper, Conor Geekie, Frank Nazar and Matthew Savoie could be among appealing options. Other forward options include Jonathan Lekkerimaki and Joakim Kemell. Of those, Kasper, Kemell and Lekkerimaki have been playing in Europe. Yzerman has plucked his first picks from the last three drafts from the European leagues, but described the challenges that comes along with trying to scout a teenager playing among men.

“You go and watch a lot of games,” he said. “You have to watch them a lot, because sometimes they hardly play. I remember two years ago flying to Europe and going to watch Lucas Raymond play and I think he got like three minutes in the game. And then I flew to the Czech Republic to watch him play in the champions league game — and he was a healthy scratch.

“If they play a lot in those leagues and do well, the simplicity of it is, you see a guy play in a men’s league. I don’t know if they get overvalued or not. For us, it really has nothing to do with what country or league they’re playing in. I’m not sure there is any advantage to it. You kind of take all those factors in and you see what they’re doing today and you try and project what they’re going to be in the future and you put them in order.”

The Wings could try to shift the pick, but Yzerman noted, “the only difficulty is finding a partner that wants to,” and he would know: He tried to move back in 2019, but couldn’t find a deal that ensured he’d still be able to draft Seider. As for deals in general, Yzerman said being surrounded by his 31 colleagues doesn’t make trades any more likely than the usual way they get a hold of one another.

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“Geez, half the time, you’re texting the guy sitting right at the table next to you,” Yzerman said. “You can do that from anywhere. Whether we’re doing it remotely or live, I think it has no bearing. You’re going to do what you’re going to do regardless. Believe it or not, it’s not like we just wander around the room, kind of looking for somebody, and open up the raincoat and sell them a watch or something like that. There is a bit of a plan to it all, believe it or not.”

The draft was held remotely in 2020 and 2021 because of COVID-19, and Yzerman became a fan of the advantages.

“I personally like doing the draft remotely, albeit the second day was kind of a death march for everyone,” Yzerman said. “We’re all on the floor, we’re kind of packed at our table, there’s not a lot of room, there’s a lot of distractions. I like doing it remotely and got used to it.”

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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