Steve Yzerman has generated more optimism the past three weeks than the Detroit Red Wings have had since … well, since he took over as general manager April 19, 2019.
He has passion, patience and a plan, and though the Red Wings are still early in their rebuilding process, you can see the path forward based on the NHL Draft, free agency and trades.
Start with the trade that brought defenseman Marc Staal and a second-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft from the New York Rangers for future considerations Sept. 26.
Detroit had space under the NHL salary cap; New York needed cap relief. So the Red Wings seized the opportunity to fill a need on their roster and acquire an asset for the future. Staal is signed for one more season, so there is no long-term commitment. He should be motivated to play well. Perhaps he could be flipped for another asset at the NHL Trade Deadline.
The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup on Sept. 28. Yzerman played a major role in building the Lightning as their GM from 2010-18 and an adviser in the 2018-19 season (and helped groom his successor, Julien BriseBois, who made his own shrewd moves to put them over the top).
Yzerman started off in a much stronger position in Tampa Bay than Detroit, inheriting young cornerstones in center Steven Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman, then 20 and 19 years old, respectively, and veteran forwards Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier.
But in what the Red Wings hope is a preview, the Lightning reshaped their roster around Stamkos and Hedman through the draft, free agency and trades.
Note that though Hedman won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Stamkos, the captain, played less than three minutes in the playoffs because of injury. The other top Conn Smythe candidates were center Brayden Point, a third-round pick (No. 79) in the 2014 NHL Draft, and forward Nikita Kucherov, a second-round pick (No. 58) in the 2011 NHL Draft.
The Red Wings need difference-makers, and the most likely way to add them is through drafting and developing.
They selected forward Lucas Raymond with the No. 4 pick of the 2020 NHL Draft on Oct. 6. He represents the highest pick they have had in three decades, since forward Keith Primeau at No. 3 in 1990. Perhaps he and defenseman Moritz Seider, the No. 6 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and Detroit’s first pick under Yzerman, can become cornerstones.
But since former GM Ken Holland recognized their 25-season playoff streak was about to end in 2016-17, the Red Wings have been stockpiling picks to give themselves more lottery tickets. After selecting 10 players in Rounds 2-7 last year, including three in the second round, they selected 11 players in Rounds 2-7 on Oct. 7, including three in the second round and two in the third. They have three picks in the second round and two in the third next year. Can some of them blossom into stars one day?
In the meantime, the Red Wings have to improve all parts of their roster and become more competitive, for their fans and the development of the players they already have.
Yzerman and the Red Wings can’t sell free agents on the chance to win the Stanley Cup. The Red Wings went 17-49-5 last season. Their 39 points were 23 fewer than the next-best team, the Ottawa Senators. Their .275 points percentage was the worst in the NHL since the salary cap was introduced in 2005-06 and the third worst in Detroit history (.250 in 1985-86; .256 in 1976-77).
What Yzerman and the Red Wings can sell, however, is opportunity and Detroit itself. The Red Wings upgraded the roster by finding free agents who wanted a chance to play more, to prove themselves, to play for their hometown team or some combination.
Even better, Detroit got each on a short-term contract, taking advantage of a unique situation with the salary cap flat at $81.5 million for this season and the economic outlook uncertain.
Goalie Thomas Greiss for two years. Defenseman Jon Merrill for one year, defenseman Troy Stecher for two years. Forward Bobby Ryan for one, Vladislav Namestnikov for two.
The Red Wings have flexibility and the potential to make more trades for assets ahead of the next two trade deadlines. In the short term, their prospects have time to develop at lower levels and aren’t necessarily blocked from earning a spot in Detroit.
“If anybody’s ready to go and help the team and they’re going to play a lot, we’ll keep them, and we’ll figure it out,” Yzerman said. “But right now, we’ve filled our holes, or the spots that were available in the roster, but it’s not like it’s set in stone that we can’t change it.
“And wouldn’t it be fantastic if a young guy just came in and [was] just simply too good to send to the American [Hockey] League or too good to loan back to Europe or whatnot or loan back to junior? It’d be a fantastic problem to have.”
In Detroit, that’s fantastic to hear.