Wojo: Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman again must be masterful, unlock NHL draft mystery

Detroit News

Detroit — You won’t be attending an NHL draft party, unless you’re a real puck-ologist. And I’m fairly certain you won’t get into a heated debate over whether the Red Wings should take a nifty center such as Marco Kasper or Matt Savoie, or a shifty winger such as Cutter Gauthier or Jonathan Lekkerimaki.

Some combination of those prospects should be available when the Wings pick eighth Thursday night in Montreal. This is a perk of being an NHL GM — not many fans are going to second-guess picks they don’t even know. It’s also the toughest part of being an NHL GM — how do you evaluate young talent across the globe playing against varying degrees of competition?

It’s a good thing Steve Yzerman knows what he’s doing, and is adept at not letting anyone else know what he’s doing. For instance, he was asked, if the talent were equal, would he prefer to grab a goalie, a defenseman or a forward at No. 8?

“That’s a really good question,” Yzerman responded to Wings broadcaster/writer Art Regner. “I’m trying to answer that without answering it. I don’t have an answer for you, so I’m not gonna answer it.”

In other words, the Wings need help everywhere and there’s no sense dropping clues. In fewer words, Yzerman plays the coy game as well as anyone. The NHL draft with all its world-wide prospects can be a mysterious endeavor, unlike the NFL and NBA, where talent pools are full of recognizable names. And when it gets mysterious, few are better to trust than Yzerman, whose drafting prowess is well-documented.

Deft drafter

Many stars on the two-time Stanley Cup champion Lightning were selected by Yzerman during his tenure. In his fourth season back here, he’s drafted under-the-radar Moritz Seider at No. 6 in 2019 and Lucas Raymond No. 4 in 2020. Seider was the best rookie in the league last season and Raymond wasn’t far behind. Also not far behind: 2021 first-rounder (No. 6 overall) Simon Edvinsson, a big defenseman who’s close to being ready for the big club.

In Detroit these days, the draft game is The Game, the primary lifeline for depleted teams. And oh boy, do we have a bunch of depleted teams.

As bad as the Wings defense is, they actually have depth in the minors and could opt for a top scorer. You want my guess? (Why??) OK, either Canadian center Savoie or Swedish winger Lekkerimaki.

“This thing could go a bunch of different ways,” Yzerman said. “But we feel pretty good about where we are, and we think we’ll get a good prospect that’ll help us.”

The Tigers are also on the clock, picking 12th in the MLB Draft July 17. The Wings and Tigers are outside the range of guaranteed future stars, partly because guaranteed future stars don’t exist. The Lions and Pistons had the “luxury” of being worse and picking higher, but GMs Brad Holmes and Troy Weaver weren’t content or patient. Holmes grabbed Michigan pass-rusher Aidan Hutchinson No. 2 in the NFL Draft, then traded up for Alabama’s spectacular (and currently injured) receiver Jameson Williams at No. 12.

Weaver pulled almost the exact same maneuver. He happily selected Purdue guard Jaden Ivey at No. 5, then traded up to No. 13 to land Memphis center Jalen Duren. Holmes and Weaver got instant plaudits for maximizing their opportunities. They were quickly — albeit prematurely — evaluated because most NFL and NBA fans avidly follow college football and basketball and know more than the average GM. (This is the type of joke the average GM hates).

The Tigers under Al Avila have been infatuated with drafting pitchers, and caused quite the stir last summer when they took high school pitcher Jackson Jobe over touted shortstop Marcelo Mayer at No. 3. Controversial, yes, but too early to measure that one fairly. When they have selected sticks recently, they’ve had better luck, and their best player this rocky season could end up being rookie centerfielder Riley Greene, No. 5 overall in 2019.

Nobody outside the sports’ inner circles can accurately assess the merits of high school baseball players, or 17-year-old Swedish hockey players, so the debate usually is about the position. And thankfully, the MLB draft appears heavy with hitters, partly due to a spate of injuries to the top college pitchers.

“I get it every year,” said Scott Pleis, Tigers director of amateur scouting. “Everybody wants a bat. Then we take bats and everybody wants a pitcher. We’re looking at a group of talent, trying to figure out the best guy who can make the best impact for the Tigers.”

More: Arm issues take toll on MLB Draft, where Tigers could look for bat at No. 12

The Tigers will draft on talent upside, not positional need, although I’ll be shocked if they don’t take a hitter in the first round. The Wings are in a similar situation, not tied to a particular position, and I think they’ll take a skilled scorer.

Getting it right

Yzerman reiterated he won’t be afraid to make trades or sign free agents with ample salary-cap space, but he’s mindful of not wasting it. In some ways, drafting the wrong guy can be a bigger waste than signing the wrong guy. So yes, he feels the pressure, even if most of us aren’t equipped to rate his choices.

“In the NFL and NBA drafts, the players are kind of household names,” Yzerman said. “To me, it’s all internal pressure. You try to make really good decisions, and you try not to be influenced by outside pressure. You’d have to talk to the Lions or the Pistons and their GMs about how they feel. There’s so much more knowledge of the players, they’ve been on national TV, they’re stars. I think it is somewhat a little bit easier for us, in that sense. But ultimately, you better get these picks right.”

Yzerman said he tries not to overthink his choices, keep it simple. He gets more of them right than wrong, and not only in the first round. He plucked Tampa Bay star Nikita Kucherov in the second round and undersized Brayden Point in the third. He gambled wisely on standout goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy in the first round and found other key players later, such as Anthony Cirelli (third round) and Ondrej Palat (seventh round).

The Wings haven’t had many hot streaks on the ice lately. That will change if Yzerman continues his hot streak in the draft and plucks the right prospects, whether we recognize their names or not. Keep solving the mystery, erase the misery. Simple indeed.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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