Detroit Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman is collecting chess pieces. We know there’s an intriguing long-term plan forming in his brilliant hockey mind. But he’s not placing his pieces on the board yet. Most of what came out Tuesday in the Wings’ season-ending media availability sent the message that Yzerman wants to stay the course with a long, long, long-term rebuild.
The final years of the franchise’s 25-year playoff streak, which ended in 2016-17, brought with them an air of denial. The streak became a curse. Detroit limped along in mediocrity to make the post-season at all costs, Everything Yzerman has done since taking over from Ken Holland in 2019 suggests charting an opposite path. Slow and steady. Go backward to go forward. Tank? No one in Hockeytown will use the word, but there are indirect ways to go about it. The morsels we there in Yzerman’s comments Tuesday.
First, there was the announcement Jeff Blashill had signed an extension to return as Detroit’s head coach for a seventh season.
“I’ve been a Red Wing for a long time now, I’ve been in this seat for a good amount of time, and I love being a Red Wing,” Blashill told reporters via Zoom conference call in Tuesday’s season-ending presser. “I love being part of this organization. And probably more importantly, I want to continue to see this team get to a better tomorrow. We’ve been through tough times over the last number of years, and to get a chance to continue to lead this team, I’m very grateful for it and I’m very excited.”
Blashill is the third-longest-tenured coach in the NHL despite missing the playoffs the past five seasons. But it’s obvious that his job description for most of that tenure has not been to guide a team to the playoffs. Blashill has been shepherding a team gradually shedding the weighty veteran contracts of the previous era, inching toward a youth-fuelled rebuild. Yzerman felt his team was consistently competitive in 2020-21, win or lose, and saw it as a sign his coach still had the respect of his troops. He feels Blashill has done a fine job with the players he’s been given.
“We need to have a better team, we need our current players to play better, and it’s up to the management to bring in players that make us a better team,” Yzerman told reporters on the Zoom call. “You need good players to win in the league. I can change coaches year after year after year. We need good players, and if we don’t have good players it’s not going to change.”
And it’s no secret the 2020-21 Wings had a shortage of good players. Some of that can be blamed on health. It was a lost season for top-line left winger Tyler Bertuzzi, limited to just nine games because of a back injury that required surgery. No. 1 center Dylan Larkin missed 12 games. Important secondary scorer Robby Fabbri missed 26 games. Pretty much every Red Wing played higher in the lineup than he would’ve on an upper-crust team. Detroit had no true No. 1 defenseman, with all due respect to Filip Hronek, and Larkin would ideally be a great two-way No. 2 center on a contender rather than the player tasked with doing everything but stop pucks on a nightly basis. The Wings had the second-worst offense and power play in the NHL. They graded out at below average or worse in most major defensive metrics at 5-on-5, from shot attempts against to chances against to high-danger chances against.
But the Wings’ struggles were…not quite by design, as that would be too extreme to imply, but they were certainly not surprising. This team let top blueline prospect Moritz Seider marinate in the Swedish League in 2020-21, where he earned the award for best defenseman. It kept center Joe Veleno in Sweden until April, when he returned to North America for tastes of the AHL and NHL. It didn’t dare bring Lucas Raymond, 2020’s No. 4 overall selection, across the pond just yet. It’s all part of Yzerman’s plan to (a) not rush the kids and (b) not hand them NHL jobs by default. And, hearing him speak Tuesday, it’s clear that 2021-22 isn’t considered an “unlock the prospect vault” season. He was quick to quell the buzz over Seider and Raymond playing in the NHL next year.
“Well, I wouldn’t be committing to these guys being on the roster yet,” Yzerman said. “They have to make the team. If they make the team, we’ll be thrilled. But they’re young guys. I want them to make the team and have a positive impact. Our expectation and our hope is that Moritz is ready to go. We’ll see that next fall. Lucas, I don’t want to rule it out, but we’ll let the situation play itself out. And if they prove they’re ready to go, they’ll be on the team. But I’m not going to force it or rush them. If they’re on the team and playing, we’ll be really happy. We have expectations for them. But is it next season or the season after? I’m not sure.”
If the kids aren’t ready, what about making moves via free agency or trades to improve the Wings? Yzerman did make his most significant trade as Detroit GM in April, landing left winger Jakub Vrana, right winger Richard Panik, a 2021 first-round pick and a 2022 second-round pick from the Washington Capitals in a trade for top right winger Anthony Mantha, but Yzerman said Tuesday he refuses to chase a trade to make a splash. He doesn’t seek a move just to look good – he wants it to actually be good, he said. Yzerman also expressed an aversion to accelerating the rebuild by acquiring win-now veterans.
“If there’s an opportunity to expedite our rebuilding process by making a trade that brings us a good player or good players, I’m certainly open to doing that, but I don’t want to trade what I think are valuable young assets for players that might only be here a year or two,” he said. “That’s not what I want to do. Would that make us better maybe now? It might, but ultimately I don’t want to just make the playoffs. I want us to become a playoff team and a team that’s trying to win a Stanley Cup somewhere down the road.
The coach coming back to keep patiently guiding a team in transition? Check. Staying committed to slow-cooking the prospect pool? Check. Refusing quick-fix trades for veterans? Check. It’s easy to read between the lines here. Detroit is in no hurry. This is the same franchise that was vocal about changing the draft lottery rules to give the bottom teams better odds and, as a result, only two lottery slots will be awarded for 2021, with more changes coming in 2022. Maybe it wasn’t just about the Red Wings feeling they were jobbed last season. Perhaps they expected they’d be in the hunt for more lotteries in the ensuing seasons.
In 2021, they own just the sixth-best lottery odds after finishing 19-27-10. But they possess two first-round picks, five picks in the first two rounds and 12 picks overall. It’s all welcome news for a franchise that is improving its youth crop but hasn’t reached the critical mass of young talent required to contend just yet. In Future Watch 2021, our panel of active NHL scouts and team executives graded Detroit’s prospect pool No. 7 in the NHL. In Raymond and Seider, Detroit owns our fourth- and fifth-overall NHL-affiliated prospects, but there’s a dropoff after them to 48th with Veleno. The 2021 draft will yield a couple more useful pieces – but Yzerman’s open reticence to throttle up may also indicate he’s watching the 2022 draft class carefully. It’s considered a group with much bigger star power than 2021’s class. The 2022 draft is the Shane Wright draft, the Brad Lambert draft and the Matthew Savoie draft.
So while every NHL GM wants to improve his team incrementally, and Yzerman will surely seek out more Vrana-style trades to add young impact players, don’t be surprised if Detroit’s 2021-22 feels similar to 2020-21. Next season isn’t the year to start pushing. It’s likely 2022-23.