Thirty-six years ago, the Detroit Red Wings drafted an undersized center from the Peterborough fourth overall. They didn’t know at the time that he was going to become one of the greatest players in franchise history and the face of three Stanley Cups. That’s because they were too busy giving away a car each game just to get people in the building and digging themselves out from decades of mismanagement, neglect and apathy.
That undersized center now comes back to the Red Wings a managerial giant. And even though the franchise isn’t in nearly as bad shape as when Steve Yzerman arrived as a player, his mandate is the same as it was when he played: to bring the Red Wings back to their past glory. It’s not often a guy gets to save a franchise twice. Mario Lemieux did it with the Pittsburgh Penguins when he was drafted there the year after the Red Wings took Yzerman, and Lemieux did it again 25 years later when he used his deferred salary to rescue them from bankruptcy. Again, Yzerman doesn’t face a task this gargantuan in Detroit, but don’t be surprised if the first thing he does after officially taking over as the GM is roll up his sleeves. (The second thing might be to place a call to Tampa Bay Lightning assistant GM Pat Verbeek, whose contract has apparently expired, to join him in Detroit.)
In any event, there is a lot of work to do. The Red Wings have 10 picks in this year’s draft. They have a dearth of cap space owing to bloated contracts to a handful of veterans and a defense that essentially needs a makeover to bring it up to speed – both literally and figuratively – with today’s NHL. Perhaps the most important thing for Red Wing fans who are walking on air today after hearing of Yzerman’s return is that as talented as he was on the ice and as outstanding a job he did the Lightning, Yzerman is not a magician. This is going to take time. Luckily, Yzerman’s name and credibility in the market will give him some of that.
But it’s difficult not to at least be a little giddy about today’s developments if you’re a Red Wings fan. Ken Holland, who was completely on board with Yzerman replacing him, will stay on for now as president of hockey operations for as long as he’d like to be there, or until he gets tired of golfing and visiting the home in Vernon B.C., that he never sees and gets antsy to start working again. Holland knows this is a move that needed to be made. He can see the standings and read the mood of the fan base. He could very well have dug in his heels and forced the Red Wings to make a very difficult, potentially ugly, decision, but he chose to step aside. He should be commended for that.
Yzerman, meanwhile, will go about doing what he does best. And that is finding players where a lot of other people aren’t looking and developing them into quality NHL performers. He will do it with precision and without emotion. He will provide a fresh set of eyes and will make the hard decisions that need to be made to move the organization forward. But if you think he’s going to be able to just snap his fingers and instantly convince teams to take on the Darren Helm or Justin Abdelkader contracts, well, not even Yzerman will be able to do that. Those are deals he’s likely going to have to live with and work around.
Where Yzerman will make his mark is in drafting and developing. This is a crucial time for the Red Wings. They’ve just begun to turn the corner with respect to integrating young players into their lineup. There is definitely some promise there. The core of youthful players showed very well down the stretch, albeit in garbage games where they faced no pressure. Dylan Larkin has the makings of being a centerpiece player and captain, while Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha are proving to be potential impact players. Holland made a good trade to get Madison Bowey on defense.
They have some decent, but not overwhelming, prospects in their system. Yzerman’s most important job as GM is to continue to supplement that youth with more good young players who can push veterans for jobs and grow with the core to make the Red Wings a contender in three or four years.
The Detroit Red Wings have not made the playoffs the past two years and there’s no reason to suggest they will in 2019-20, either. After all, Yzerman can’t play anymore. But his history in Tampa suggests he has a firm grasp on what it takes to build and elite NHL roster. And for one of those rare times in history, he has a second chance to rebuild an organization.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.