Detroit Red Wings mailbag: Time to replace GM Steve Yzerman? Not so fast

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Red Wings project to finish with around 90 points; it’s an improvement over last season but still a trajectory that will see them miss the playoffs for a seventh straight season.

Their continued struggles are the topic of this mailbag, specifically regarding the job done by general manager Steve Yzerman, who was named to the position on April 19, 2019. Reader Gary C. emailed to ask, “It’s been four years since Yzerman has become GM. As far as being more competitive, do you really think there has been that much improvement? Or should Chris Ilitch be looking for a new GM?”

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The NHL is a results-driven business, but Yzerman has had good reason to parry any questions about when the Wings might return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016. Plenty of his colleagues around the league are having a hard time, too, including teams that have been in rebuilds longer than the Wings.

Yzerman inherited an aging roster and a sparse farm system. He made low-key moves early on, such as acquiring Robby Fabbri from the St. Louis Blues in 2019 for Jacob de la Rose, a forward the Wings had grabbed off waivers the prior season. They were moves that improved the on-ice product while Yzerman waited for his draft picks to develop, and for some of the veterans to finish their contracts. (He bought out two of them: Justin Abdelkader and Frans Nielsen).

Yzerman’s first two first-round picks — Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond — have already made big impacts, especially compared to some of the first-round picks that came before them: Filip Zadina (No. 6, 2018), struggling to gain a foothold; Dennis Cholowski (No. 20, 2016), exposed and lost for nothing in the Seattle expansion draft; Evgeny Svechnikov (No. 19, 2015), gone from the organization without anything any return. Whiffing on three first-round picks in four years set back the organization’s development, and while the picks were made before Yzerman, their lack of success has been felt under his timeline. Imagine if the Wings had chosen Quinn Hughes instead in 2018 — the defense’s top four would feature Seider, Hughes, Filip Hronek and Jake Walman.

Yzerman has not had the luxury of a No. 1 overall pick since he came to the Wings. Even with such an advantage, it can be hard to become a contender: The Buffalo Sabres picked Rasmus Dahlin at No. 1 in 2018 and Owen Power at No. 1 in 2021. Those are two franchise defensemen, yet the Sabres are tied with the Wings in the standings this season and have not qualified for the playoffs since 2011. The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t missed the playoffs since drafting generational forward Auston Matthews at No. 1 in 2016, but they also haven’t won a playoff round.

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Free agency and trades are the other ways to improve a team. Most of Yzerman’s bigger trades have focused on acquiring draft picks; although Jakub Vrana was part of the 2021 Anthony Mantha trade, it was the Washington Capitals’ first-round pick that was of chief importance to the rebuild. It wasn’t until this past summer that Yzerman was really active in free agency, signing forwards David Perron and Dominik Kubalik, and defensemen Ben Chiarot and Olli Måättä. (Goaltender Ville Husso was acquired via trade.)

Seider, Raymond, Husso, Perron and Fabbri number among Yzerman’s best moves. Others have been less effective: Since the start of January, Vrana, Alex Nedeljkovic and Adam Erne — all players brought in by Yzerman, with a combined salary cap hit north of $10 million — have been placed on waivers and ended up in the minors. (Vrana was recalled this week.)

Yzerman has improved the Wings, and it’s not his fault that, for example, the Wings have had to go without Vrana and Tyler Bertuzzi for significant stretches. (Bertuzzi has missed 94 of 194 games since the 2021 season; Vrana has played 39 games over the past two years.) Four years is not much time, weighed against the task of forging a Stanley Cup contender — just consider when the Wings were rebuilding around Yzerman as their prize pick at No. 4 in 1983: It still took 14 years before the Stanley Cup returned to Detroit, and that was with the 1989 draft that yielded two future Hall of Famers in Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov. That was when there were 26 teams, rather than 32. And no salary cap.

So does Ilitch need to post a job opening? Absolutely not.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames.

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Her latest book, “On the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Draft,” is available from  Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

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