Steve Yzerman sees big potential among Red Wings' top prospects

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Traverse City — Steve Yzerman is at his first Red Wings’ training camp — as a general manager, of course.

The Hall of Fame player returned as the organization's GM in April and is overseeing the team’s rebuild. The Wings have missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons — after making it for 25 straight years.

But, as Yzerman saw last week as the organization’s top prospects won the eight-team NHL Prospects Tournament — as well as the opening practices of the Wings’ camp — there are quality building blocks.

“We need more (prospects), but I’m encouraged — there’s a good group of young players that have potential,” Yzerman said Friday as he met with the media at camp, after the day’s workouts had been completed. “We’re going to try to add to that group. But with that group, we’re trying to create an environment that allows them to go from prospects to good NHL players, and that’s a big step.”

It was only four games, but the Wings fielded one of the younger teams in the Prospects Tournament and Yzerman was encouraged by the competitiveness of his team.

Defenseman Moritz Seider, and forwards Joe Veleno, Filip Zadina, Givani Smith, Chase Pearson, Ryan Kuffner and Taro Hirose were among some of the recent draft picks or undrafted college free agents who were impressive, according to Yzerman.

Red Wings players skate through drills during practice on Friday in Traverse City.

“You like to win — it’s better to win than to lose,” Yzerman said. “Most importantly, the kids competed real hard. They learned from it. Some of those kids are only 18 years old and playing against some 23- and 24-year-olds.

“They had good week’s and it’s preparing them for next week and a good buildup for them moving forward.

“It looks like we have a good group of prospects here and we’re hoping they continue to improve and eventually become NHLers.”

Many analysts believe the Wings aren’t going to be anywhere near the playoffs this season. Yzerman is intent on constructing the best possible team this season — and beyond.

“We’re building; we have a mix of veterans and young players,” Yzerman said. “What I’m trying to do is put the most skilled and most competitive and driven and intelligent players on the ice. We’re trying to amass as many of those players as we can, regardless of their age or where they come from.”

The performance of Seider, the Wings’ first-round draft pick in June, during the tournament has been an early story line this month. The 6-foot-3 defenseman looked mobile, decisive and physical, and may not be as far away from the NHL as originally thought.

“He did very well,” Yzerman said. “As an 18-year-old defenseman, he logged a lot of ice time, and he played in all situations. It’s a big step coming into this tournament, and you watch the guys who do well in this tournament, and generally they turn out to be pretty good players in the NHL.

“I’m not sure where he’ll play (after the exhibition season). He’s here this week, he’s going to play in the preseason, and we’re going to take one step at a time. Let’s get through the preseason. We have options, Detroit, the American Hockey League (Grand Rapids) or back to Europe. All three are potentially good options.

“We’ll take it one step at a time.”

Yzerman on ...

Yzerman touched on other topics Friday:

On returning to the Wings’ organization, after a successful run as Tampa’s GM: “It’s an exciting opportunity. It’s a great challenge, and there’s a lot of work to be done. But’s a fantastic opportunity for myself to come back to the Red Wings organization. The Ilitches bought the team in 1982, I came in ’83, and we went through it and eventually won a Stanley Cup. It was very gratifying. I’m hoping we can again do that at some point in the future.”

On the Wings’ decision to not name a captain this season, but rather four alternate captains: “Being a captain in the NHL, I don’t think you have to wear a ‘C’ to be a leader on a hockey team. We’re looking for them all to be leaders on and off the ice and set the tone the way we’re going to play and conduct ourselves. For me, I want to get to know all these guys. I know a few of the older guys. But it’s an opportunity to get to know everyone, and when we eventually do name a captain, we intend that person to be captain for a long time.”

On his relationship with coach Jeff Blashill: “Working with him this summer, he’s extremely organized and he’s an intelligent guy. He wants to try different things. He’s won at every level he’s coached, and when that happens, it’s not just being lucky. I watched the first day of practice and it’s organized, it’s intense, it’s real productive. And we haven’t lost a game, so everybody is hunky dory.”

On Veleno, who led the tournament with seven goals and was one of the best two-way forwards in the event: “I know he worked extremely hard this summer. He spent the majority of his time in Detroit training and showed up in very good shape. He appears to be a very dedicated and serious young man who wants to do well in the NHL.”

On Zadina, who didn’t score a goal but had five assists in the four games: “He had numerous great scoring chances. He can really shoot the puck when he gets open, and he has instincts for getting open. He’s only 19. He was eligible to play junior hockey last year and did very well in the American Hockey League. It’s just adjusting to the pro game. He’ll continue to get physically stronger and gain experience, and with that strength and experience, he’ll get more accustomed to the speed of the pro game.”

On forward Adam Erne, who Yzerman acquired from Tampa for a third-round draft pick: “Adam has a chance to be a top-nine forward. For us to acquire a guy who I think can play in the top-nine, he has that potential; we’ll see if he can fulfill it. He’s 23, he fits in with our group of players.”

Twitter: @tkulfan