Niyo: Steve Yzerman's arrival buys time for Wings to get back on track

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — It wasn’t the first thing Steve Yzerman said upon his return. But it was the point he kept coming back to Friday as his long-awaited homecoming was made official.

The Captain is back as the Red Wings’ general manager, and amid all the trumpeted fanfare, there was the same measured leader we all remember.

New Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman, left, escorts owner Marian Ilitch during Friday's press conference.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Yzerman said, seated on the dais between his new boss, Chris Ilitch, and his old one, Ken Holland, another reminder of how much has changed over the last decade — and how much hasn’t. “And depending on your age, you know that this takes time. We’ve been through this before, and I caution everyone — and temper the excitement — that this is going to take time.”

It was time. Few will argue that, including Holland himself ultimately, which was something Ilitch went out of his way to say as he announced a contract extension -- or appeasement, perhaps -- for the longtime GM in his new role as a senior vice president.

But with the Red Wings slogging through the muck-and-grind misery of a full-scale rebuild — postseason bystanders for a third consecutive spring after that quarter-century playoff run in Detroit — there’s no arguing this, either: The message Yzerman delivered Friday wasn’t any different than the one Holland’s been sending for awhile now. It’s no different than the one Ilitch himself offered at various points the past couple years.

It’s just that Yzerman’s pitch is one a frustrated fan base is willing to receive. And in that sense, it buys them all some time, doesn’t it?

“I think the answer is probably yes,” Ilitch admitted, when I asked him just that Friday. “For those of us in professional sports, or who cover pro sports, this is the way they’re designed, right? They’re not designed for any one team to be on top forever. Everybody gets their chance at the bottom of the wheel and you’ve got to rebuild and get your way back to the top. Ken knows that, Steve knows that, I know that. I think our fans know that. But still, having said that, we’re all impatient. We all want to win now. …

“But for all of us, it’s a process. And for me, and I think for our fans, there’s actually gonna be some fun in watching these young players develop. They’re gonna be the future stars. And hopefully, if everything goes to plan, they’re a part of a future championship team. And to say you were there, you lived through those rebuilding years, there’s something to say for that.”

All of that is easier said than done, of course. And no one need remind Yzerman of that. He was here Friday not just because this idea was broached long ago, after he balked at a contract extension in Tampa — citing family reasons after years of commuting between Tampa and Detroit — and began thinking about his next move last year. Or before Ilitch and Holland (grudgingly) started discussing the possibility and how it all might work. Or even before the Wings reached out to Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and asked permission to formally discuss a job with Yzerman last month.

No, they were all here Friday because Yzerman’s former team — the presumptive Stanley Cup favorite — just got swept out of the playoffs without even winning a game.

Nine years, four trips to the Eastern Conference finals, one Stanley Cup final appearance, no championship for all Yzerman’s thunder and Lightning.

“I was expecting to win a Stanley Cup,” Yzerman said of his tenure in Tampa. “I was hoping to win a Stanley Cup. We didn’t do that. So I’m disappointed.”

The Lightning cleaned out lockers Thursday after that stunning, season-ending loss in Columbus, and all parties had agreed that Yzerman, who’d stepped back and spent this season in an advisory role for new GM Julien Brisebois, wouldn’t join Detroit until after Tampa’s season ended.

Coming aboard

But now the work begins with his new team. Holland is headed to Sweden Saturday to scout next week’s Under-18 World Championships. Yzerman will join him there, getting his first chance to sit down with some of the Wings’ amateur scouting staff. When he returns, he plans to meet with head coach Jeff Blashill, though he already spoke with him Friday and said he’s fully on board with Blashill’s new two-year contract extension.

“And I’ll meet with as many people as I can as soon as I can to touch base,” Yzerman said. “Whenever there’s changes made, there’s uncertainty. And it’s important to reach out.”

Already there’s speculation about who Yzerman might bring with him from Tampa. Pat Verbeek, who left Detroit to join him there, is now an assistant GM with an expiring contract. He’s also a candidate for the GM vacancy in Edmonton, but if he doesn’t land that job, expect to see him in Detroit.

Other familiar names on the Lightning staff include former Wings players Stacy Roest (director of player development) and Jamie Pushor (pro scouting director). And Wings fans no doubt are eager to see Tampa’s amateur scouting director, Al Murray, bolt as well. (Especially the ones who recall the 2011 draft in which the Lightning selected Nikita Kucherov three picks after the Wings chose Ryan Sproul in the second round.)

“I have some ideas on what I want to do,” Yzerman said. “But there’s a lot of good people here and I want to spend some time with Ken and talk about what he thinks we need. I’ve got a lot of questions.”

He’ll be the first to tell you he doesn’t have all the answers, either.

“They’re difficult jobs, they really are,” said Yzerman, who was named NHL GM of the year in 2015. “It’s hard. It’s not an exact science.”

But he does hold an advanced degree now, after four years as an understudy in Detroit and nine more as the top executive in Tampa. And that, along with his Hall of Fame credentials as a player here -- ending that 42-year Stanley Cup drought in 1997 and then leading the Wings to two more titles -- engenders some goodwill in a town starved for a winner right now.

Yzerman, for his part, has proven to be an aggressive and decisive GM, wasting little time in dumping the first coach he hired in Guy Boucher, shipping out franchise mainstays like Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis and making scores of so-called hockey trades during his tenure in Tampa.

He also built something to last, signing stars like Steven Stamkos and Kucherov to below-market deals — Yzerman drove a hard bargain even as a player negotiating his own contracts — while churning his roster and investing heavily in player development.

That’s what he’ll try to do here now, continuing the work that finally began in earnest the last couple years on Holland’s watch.

The Red Wings currently own 19 NHL draft selections over the next two years, including as many as eight in the first two rounds. (A 2020 conditional pick acquired in the Gustav Nyquist trade this winter could end up a second-rounder.)

And while they haven’t had any lottery luck the past few years, there are some intriguing prospects in the pipeline — Filip Zadina, Joe Veleno, Jared McIsaac among them — as well as young talent stepping forward at the NHL level. Not surprisingly, Yzerman namechecked Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi and Filip Hronek in his remarks Friday.

“I believe the foundation is here for a good core of players,” he said.

Work to do

There’s also some crumbling infrastructure, though. There are buyouts to consider (Jonathan Ericsson? Trevor Daley?) and other contracts that’ll be nearly impossible to get out from under.

Justin Abdelkader (19 points in 71 games) carries a $4.25 million cap hit through 2023, Frans Nielsen is on the books for $5.25 million for three more seasons, and Darren Helm has two years left at $3.85 million.

Other contract decisions loom as well. Holland was able to lock up Larkin with a long-term extension — a deal that’ll look like a bargain soon if he keeps scoring the way he did this season (32 goals, 73 points) — but Mantha, Athanasiou and Bertuzzi all will be restricted free agents next summer.

And while Yzerman’s cachet might help the Red Wings land the big fish in free agency, it doesn’t sound like he’s going to be trolling just yet.

“I’m not gonna come in here this first year on July 1 and make a big splash just so we are a little bit better next year,” he said. “We’ve got to draft and develop, be patient. If there’s ways to expedite the process, we’ll do that. But it’s hard, though.”

All of which explains why he kept returning to that same theme Friday, reminding everyone about the size of the task at hand.

“We’re gonna do things a certain way, and I’m going to ask for some patience,” he said. “I know there’s a limit to the patience of the fans, of the media, of everyone. Of the boss, for that matter.”

But for the moment, all that mattered was that it was Yzerman saying it.

“I’m excited to be back,” he added. “I’m also … to be honest with you, I’m nervous. I’ve got a lot of work to do. And I’ve got to do a good job.”

I expect the fans in Detroit will allow him the time to do just that.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo