The exact scenario that Red Wings fans have been dreaming of for years actually came true. Steve Yzerman came home.
The homecoming of the Red Wings icon seemed like destiny once he stepped down in Tampa Bay back in September. Now the 12th general manager in team history, Yzerman has plenty of work to do if he wants to win his second Stanley Cup as an executive — something that eluded him in Tampa. And while his departure came on a sour note, there is no denying the juggernaut he built down there.
Named NHL General Manager of the Year in 2015, the success he garnered with the Lightning is what has Red Wings fans most excited, his legendary status with the franchise is just the cherry on top. But it is important to remember his track record in the Sunshine State should not be the expectation. With some pieces already in place, the work starts now for Yzerman.
Keeping that in mind, many modifications to how the club operates should be on the horizon. From how the front office staff is built out, to contract management, to the draft, Yzerman has the control to run things the way he wants to. With Detroit in a rebuilding period, every little thing Yzerman does matters.
From huge splashes to subtle changes, I took an extensive look at Yzerman’s nine-year tenure with the Lightning and how it relates to the Red Wings.
This is pretty relevant with the draft being just two months away.
Yzerman is well-known for finding post-round-one gems, be it a Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, or Anthony Cirelli. His main targets are high upside players, which is the exact strategy the Red Wings need to adopt. Now, the Lightning were never in a full rebuild mode like the Red Wings, so how he collected picks vary from year to year.
|Draft Year||Number of Picks|
Not including the 2010 draft (as he took over in May of 2010), the above chart depicts the amount of draft picks Yzerman made each year. He’s never been one to sell the farm. The least amount of picks he’s ever made in one year is 6. More interesting, though, is that he owned 9 and 10 picks in 2015 and 2016, respectively, despite a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015. It seems as if he highly covets his draft picks, more so than other contending teams.
And what about the players he is drafting? The chart below divides how many draft picks he has made by position, with the number in parenthesis displaying his first round selections.
This seems pretty standard. With there being twice as many forward spots on an NHL roster compared to defensemen, the forward number is naturally going to be higher. I wouldn’t classify any of these numbers as outliers. His model on goaltenders is also pretty normal, not going more than one year without selecting a netminder. For the first round, he favors best player available, not specifically targeting a certain position over the nine years.
Looking at which players he prefers to develop, my findings were very interesting. Below you’ll see which leagues/countries Yzerman has drafted players out of (players playing in leagues intended to attend college were listed as “College-Bound”).
My biggest takeaway from this is Yzerman is obsessed with the CHL. He has drafted 34 players from that league, compared to 33 if you combine every other league. He also isn’t too keen on the Scandinavian nations, drafting only two Fins (the first one coming in his third draft) and one Swede (the first one in his ninth draft). With the Red Wings strong ties to Sweden, you have to wonder how well Yzerman will be able to work with the teams’ European staff.
For college-bound players, its pretty clear he is conservative with them in building periods. Before the Lightning became a powerhouse, Yzerman mostly avoided them, having gone the entire 2013 draft without taking one. Recently, however, he has taken a large portion of them since 2017, which makes sense as contending teams need to infuse more mature players on cheap contracts. I wouldn’t expect to see many college-bound players be selected by Detroit in the 2019 or 2020 drafts.
What Yzerman is mostly known for is the insane amount of gambling he does with these picks. Making many high-risk picks — some of which have worked out, others that have not.
Only six goaltenders have been taken in the first round since 2010, and Yzerman’s decision to take Andrei Vasilevskiy has turned out great, while the other five teams who took a goalie that high are regretting the move. With how difficult it is to project goalie prospects, this is the kind of pick you put your job on the line for. The Vasilevskiy pick carried even more risk due to the Russian factor, but Yzerman has shown little fear in it highlighted by him taking a chance on Kucherov, who fell to the second round in fear of him not coming over to North America. I’d say those picks worked out just fine.
But Yzerman has had his fair share of whiffs. The first draft pick he ever made was with the sixth overall pick in 2010 and he used in on talented winger Brett Connolly. This pick was incredibly risky because Connolly spent the majority of his draft year injured, playing only 16 games that season. In 2014 he took Anthony DeAngelo in the first round, which turned many heads due to DeAngelo’s well documented character issues. Neither of these players panned out.
Also slightly concerning — with Detroit possessing the sixth pick and all — is Yzerman has missed on all three top-ten selections he has made. Slater Koekkoek and Connolly both became busts, and while Jonathan Drouin has carved out a nice NHL career (albeit in Montreal) they could have had stud defenseman Seth Jones instead. Ouch.
Apply this to Detroit, and you have to wonder how well the success rate will transfer. To implement a much more “just go for it” philosophy, they will need plenty of luck to go their way.
Salary Cap Management
Yzerman will be walking into quite the mess when it comes to Detroit’s payroll. Bad contract after bad contract litters the lineup, which has made the task of infusing more youth very challenging.
From an in-house perspective, Yzerman has done a fabulous job at retaining his players on good value deals. The below chart represents some of the notable RFA signings Yzerman has made (the contract section displays AAV).
|Steven Stamkos||21||$7.5m, 5 years|
|Teddy Purcell||25||$2.3m, 2 years|
|Anders Lindback||24||$1.8m, 2 years|
|Victor Hedman||20||$4m, 5 years|
|Tyler Johnson||23||$3.3m, 3 years|
|Ondrej Palat||23||$3.3m, 3 years|
|Richard Panik||23||$735k, 1 year|
|Alex Killorn||24||$2.5m, 2 years|
|Ben Bishop||26||$2.3m, 2 years|
|Vladislav Namestnikov||22||$874k, 1 year|
|Vladislav Namestnikov||23||$1.9m, 2 years|
|Alex Killorn||26||$4.5m, 7 years|
|Andrei Vasilevskiy||21||$3.5m, 3 years|
|Nikita Kucherov||23||$4.8m, 3 years|
|Yanni Gourde||25||$1m, 2 years|
|Tyler Johnson||26||$5m, 7 years|
|Ondrej Palat||26||$5.3m, 5 years|
|J.T. Miller||25||$5.3m, 5 years|
|Nikita Kucherov||26||$9.5m, 8 years|
Early on, Yzerman was quick to ink his young franchise stars in Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to five-year deals, both of which took them to UFA status. But as money got tight, Yzerman found himself forced into bridge deals. The value he got out of them was extraordinary and it allowed him to build such a dominant squad. But long-term, the team would have been better off passing on the short-term deals. Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Vasilevskiy, and Kucherov are all examples of players he bridged and all of them are due for a significant raise.
This is especially critical to Detroit, who has Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, and Tyler Bertuzzi coming off bridge-deals next off-season. History tells us Yzerman won’t be afraid to go long-term, assuming he believes these players can make up the foundation of the future.
Looking at the players he has let walk, there are a few standouts. The biggest name being Jonathan Marchessault, who left to join the Florida Panthers on a low-money deal and quickly developed into a consistent 20-goal scorer. To be fair, Marchessault had failed to prove himself in the league upon his exit from Tampa, but you have to wonder how Yzerman’s analytics staff let Marchessault loose without a fight. Other notable names who walked include Simon Gagne, Alex Tanguay, Sean Bergenheim, Mike Smith, and…Luke Witkowski…who just so happens to be a pending UFA this July.
Based on how he prioritizes roster flexibility, I’d imagine a reunion with pending UFA Thomas Vanek isn’t in the cards.
It’s worth noting that in Yzerman’s first off-season as GM, he was quite aggressive in reconstructing a team that only accumulated 80 points the season prior. In free agency alone, he signed depth players such as Brett Clark, Dan Ellis, Randy Jones, Pavel Kubina, Dominic Moore, and Bergenheim. The added depth helped fuel Tampa for a surprising run to the Eastern Conference Final. With the current contract situation in Detroit, I’m not so sure he’ll have the luxury of reshaping the team the way he wants to right out of the gates.
In terms of UFA’s that he has brought in/retained, there are some good and bad. Below lists some of the more notable out-of-house UFA signings he has made.
|Sami Salo||38||$3.8m, 2 years|
|Matthew Carle||27||$5.5m, 6 years|
|Valtteri Flippula||29||$5m, 5 years|
|Anton Stralman||27||$4.5m, 5 years|
|Brian Boyle||29||$2m, 3 years|
|Dan Girardi||33||$3m, 2 years|
Yzerman has never been one to make huge splashes in free agency. The core of his team was built through the draft. For the most part, he only goes after players who can fill out his roster and play in a specific depth role. He was in on the John Tavares sweepstakes in 2018, but I mean, who wasn’t? I will point out, however, the excellent job Yzerman’s scouting department has done at identifying undrafted free-agents, having found gems in Johnson and Gourde.
The in-house side of unrestricted free-agency is where Yzerman really stands out. There are three recent cases I want to point out.
|Steven Stamkos||26||$8.5m, 8 years|
|Victor Hedman||25||$7.9m, 8 years|
|Ryan McDonagh||30||$6.8m, 7 years|
These three monster signings all have come within the last three years. They have defined Yzerman’s persistence to retain his key players. Stamkos being the most famous case, as he nearly hit the open market in 2016 before Yzerman convinced him to stay. This is extremely relevant to Detroit because when Dylan Larkin’s current contract ends, he will be set to become a UFA. Obviously, I don’t have a crystal ball to see Larkin’s stance on hitting free-agency in 2024, but if he does consider to test the waters, there is now a general manager in place who has been on this roller-coaster before.
Changing gears, former GM Ken Holland’s biggest Achilles heel was being too loyal to his players. He held onto multiple players on the wrong side of thirty for too long in hopes of keeping the playoff streak alive and it has now handicapped the team. Yzerman’s past reveals his ability to make tough decisions. In 2013 he bought out team captain Vincent Lecavalier after 14 years in Tampa that included a Stanley Cup. In Detroit’s case, they have veteran Niklas Kronwall who is contemplating a return next season, even though his time to ride off into the sunset is near. There is reason to believe Yzerman can put his foot down and not offer an extension.
Other buyouts executed by Yzerman include Matthew Carle in 2016 (buying out the final two years of a six-year contract) and Ryan Malone in 2014 (buying out the final year of a seven-year contract).
A flaw that Yzerman, like Holland, has is the fact that he hands out no-trade clauses like candy. Ten players on Tampa’s roster that won 62 regular season games had some form of trade protection — which tied Detroit for most in the league (before the Gustav Nyquist trade). Now, obviously, the difference between those two rosters is staggering, but you can’t deny Yzerman has little hesitation to hand one out.
Trades are largely based on the state of a franchise. Playoff teams buy, non-playoff teams sell. Yzerman has done both. He made 56 total trades in his time as Lightning GM, some holding more weight than others.
Considering deals meant to acquire young assets, Yzerman has made his fair share of them. Two particular trades highlight his ability to finesse premium picks.
The first is a series of back-to-back trades. Yzerman sent Steve Downie to Colorado for Kyle Quincey, then immediately shipping Quincey off to Detroit for a 2012 first round pick. While at the expense of Holland, Yzerman essentially turned Steve Downie into Vasilevskiy.
The second deal was a little more complicated. He sent team captain Martin St. Louis to New York for Ryan Callahan, a conditional 2014 second round pick (which eventually became a first) and a 2015 first round pick. To acquire two firsts for a past-prime St. Louis is pure robbery.
It is creativity like this that Detroit needs if they want to speed up their rebuild.
In more traditional seller deals, there are several instances where he has received good value. Players he was able to receive at least a second round pick for include Brian Boyle, Andrej Meszaros, Connolly, DeAngelo, Kubina, and Moore. The Ben Bishop trade, with the biggest piece coming back in Eric Cernak, is also worth noting.
His list of just straight up hockey trades has some eye-catchers as well. The most well-known being the Jonathan Drouin for Mikhail Sergachev swap. Fair to say the winner of that deal is still to be determined. The motive behind the move, however, was strictly salary cap reasons, as seen with Drouin in need of an extension and Sergachev still on a rookie contract. Before breaking out, Bishop was brought to Tampa in exchange for Cory Conacher. Dwayne Roloson was stolen via trade for Ty Wishart, later enjoying a renascence on route to a long 2011 playoff run.
Detroit could find themselves in this kind of market down the road as they continue to seek that coveted top-pair defensemen and starting goaltender. With how difficult it is to draft them, a hockey trade could be the best option to land one.
Lastly is buyer type deals. Ones that are meant to bolster the roster. There are three instances where Yzerman dealt several draft picks and/or prospects.
Anders Lindback, the centerpiece of the first trade, was brought in to add stability to the crease. The price was steep, but Yzerman was willing to forgo the picks if it meant he could find his future netminder. With no for-sure solution in Detroit’s system, expect Yzerman to invest heavily in the position at some point whether it be by way of trade or a top-end draft pick.
The next two examples reveal something about Yzerman. He is not overly interested in pure rentals. Both being deadline deals to give Tampa more ammunition for a playoff run, all three players were pending free agents — Coburn and McDonagh being UFAs, Miller an RFA. And each player was re-signed on a multi-year contract. When big time assets are going the other way, Yzerman does it with the intent of keeping the players. It may not matter now, but when Detroit reaches win-now mode it sure will.
Staff and Personnel
Unlike his beginning days in Tampa, Yzerman is entering a much more stable environment. In Detroit, there is a strong ownership group, supporting cast with ties to Yzerman, and head coach already in place. His hiring doesn’t follow the firing of his predecessor. Holland is being promoted within the organization to make way for Yzerman’s return. There was much more unrest when he arrived in Tampa, as the general manager and coaching positions had been vacant and the franchise was under new ownership.
The dismissal of head coach Rick Tocchet came a month before Yzerman’s hiring, meaning he had to scramble to find a bench boss for the upcoming season. Less than a month into the job he signed Guy Boucher to a four-year contract. Boucher had only one year of pro hockey experience on his coaching résumé, leading the Montreal Canadians’ AHL affiliate to a 52 win season. Boucher spent the five previous seasons working his way up the coaching tree in the QMJHL, which included a championship in 2009.
Despite defying the expectations of many by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in year one, Boucher was let go by Yzerman after three seasons. The Lightning went 51-54-9 the last two seasons under Boucher’s watch — not good enough for a team trying to establish a winning culture. Jon Cooper was then appointed head coach, previously serving in the same position for the teams’ AHL affiliate. Cooper had years of success under his belt in lower levels, having won championships in the NAHL, USHL, and AHL. Cooper has since guided the club to a Stanley Cup Final appearance and a Presidents’ Trophy.
What this most likely means is Jeff Blashill is safe…for now. Like Blashill, Boucher and Cooper had little NHL coaching experience, but were young, innovative minds who had undeniable success outside of the NHL. However, if results don’t come within time, Blashill may suffer the same fate as Boucher. On the other hand, Cooper failed to win a postseason game his first two seasons as Lightning head coach, so its hard to pinpoint Yzerman’s breaking point. Based on his comments on the rebuild requiring patience, I would imagine Blashill gets a decent sized leash.
Diving into how Yzerman handles his front office and scouting staffs, well, the answer might depend on what his former cohorts in Tampa do.
Pat Verbeek, who left Detroit along side Yzerman in 2010 to become assistant GM, has been rumored to come back to the Red Wings. But some of Yzerman’s ideal brain trusts may already be in place. He attempted to bring current assistant GM Ryan Martin to Tampa with him, and he has a tight relationship with Kris Draper and Holland from his playing career.
I would keep an eye on director of amateur scouting Tyler Wright and his job security. Al Murray who holds the same position in Tampa could potentially be departing, and I’m sure Yzerman would love to nab him to run the scouting department in Detroit. Murray deserves just as much credit as Yzerman for everything discussed in the “Drafting” section of this piece.
With another expansion draft on the way this holds some importance. I won’t dwindle on this too long since the 2017 iteration was a one time thing, and many of Tampa’s protected players were obvious choices.
Tampa utilized the 7-3-1 protection outline. These were the players they protected:
Most of the protected players seem self-explanatory. Ryan Callahan, the only iffy forward protected, was not made available to Vegas because he had a no-trade-clause that made protection mandatory. Yzerman did however orchestrate a trade for Vegas to take Jason Garrison off their hands, also sending Nikita Gusev and two draft picks to Sin City. Side Deals proved to cost many teams, and while Gusev does look like he’ll make for a solid depth piece, this is not an overly regrettable move, especially when you consider how strong Tampa’s depth is.
But, the side deal strategy was one Holland specifically avoided, with his ideology of “Just let them take who they want” appearing to be the new blueprint for teams when the Seattle expansion draft rolls around. Yzerman survived the first time, but now the question is if he’ll return to that formula again, or has he learned from his peer’s mistakes?
The introduction of the Yzerman regime is the beginning of a new era in Red Wings hockey. Fantasy has become reality.
But just like when he first arrived in the Summer of 1983, the long playoff runs and Stanley Cup parades didn’t happen right away. It took time. It took drafting well. It took finding the right coach. It took disappointment. Yzerman’s been through all of that with Tampa and now that he’s back home, he’s ready to go through all of it again.