How Steve Yzerman can turn busy June into Detroit Red Wings’ advantage

Detroit Free Press

The pressure is on for Steve Yzerman and his staff to finalize who they see as the future of the Detroit Red Wings — and to help the team in the present.

The NHL combine runs Sunday through Saturday in Buffalo, New York, giving teams a chance to assess the physical and medical prowess of around 100 of the top prospects who will be available in the June 28-29 draft in Nashville, Tennessee. The fitness tests include standing horizontal jump, force plate vertical jump, bench press, pro agility test, and pull ups. Team personnel can also interview players to get a feel for their personalities.

The Wings held steady in May’s draft lottery, leaving them holding their first pick at No. 9. They also hold picks at Nos. 17, 41, 42, 43, 73, 117, 137, 169, and 201.

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Yzerman just got a close look at some of the players headed for the draft, having seen Michigan’s Adam Fantilli (Canada) and Leo Carlsson (Sweden) at the World Championship, where he was part of the management group behind the Canadian team that beat Moritz Seider’s Germans to win the gold medal.

Fantilli and Carlsson are projected to be among the first players selected after consensus No. 1 Connor Bedard, though, so there is little chance either will still be on the board at No. 9.

Yzerman could, however, use some of his draft capital to move up in the draft. The Chicago Blackhawks aren’t going to relinquish the chance to draft Bedard, and the Anaheim Ducks (who finished last but were bumped back a spot in the lottery) aren’t likely to give up the No. 2 pick, given their need to improve. But maybe Yzerman can move up a handful of spots if he packages some of his picks. It’s what he did in 2021 to get goaltender Sebastian Cossa, using the first-round pick Yzerman had received from the Washington Capitals in the Anthony Mantha trade (No. 23), plus a second-round pick (No. 48) and fifth-round pick (No. 138), to get the No. 15 pick from the Dallas Stars.

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Beyond Bedard, Fantilli and Carlsson, another center who projects to be among the early picks later this month is Williams Smith. (Smith is scheduled to be at the combine.) The 6-foot, 181-pound, right-handed shot recorded 126 points in 59 games with the U.S. National Team Development Program in 2022-23. The Wings are thin at center in the farm system once past Marco Kasper, the 2022 first-round pick (No. 8) who played one game with the team this spring before being waylaid by a nagging injury.

Yzerman could also package some of his picks to trade for an established player, like he did last summer when he used the Wings’ third round pick in the 2022 draft to acquire goaltender Ville Husso from the St. Louis Blues. That stabilized the Wings in net, and turned out to be especially beneficial given how Alex Nedeljkovic struggled.

Using the picks for a player holds appeal because the Wings have missed the playoffs seven years running, and as much as the most significant way forward in a rebuild is through drafting and developing — as the Wings have done, in recent seasons, with Moritz Seider, Lucas Raymond and Jonatan Berggren — there is growing urgency to reach the playoffs again.

The Florida Panthers snuck across the finish line on April 11, two days before the scheduled end of the season (there were two games on April 14 that were postponed from earlier dates). The Panthers were the second wild card in the Eastern Conference, and one by one upset higher seeds all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

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The Wings have roughly $30 million in salary cap space going into next season, with eight forwards, four defensemen and one goaltender who were regulars this past season under contract through 2023-24. Even accounting for the need to sign more than one player, Yzerman has the flexibility to add a high-value player through a trade. That may, ultimately, may be the best usage of some of his draft capital, especially since the last thing that makes sense for the Wings is to use any of their high-end young players or prospects as bait to bring in a marquee player.

Contact Helene St. James at 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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