Detroit — The date of Steve Yzerman’s return to the Red Wings as the organization’s executive vice-president and general manager was fitting.
It occurred on April 19, 2019. Of course it did. For the man who made the uniform No. 19 iconic for the Wings’ legion of fans.
Sunday will be the one year anniversary of Yzerman taking control of the Wings’ organization — former GM Ken Holland was elevated in the front office when Yzerman arrived, and shortly after left to become GM in Edmonton — and embarking on rebuilding the team.
Nobody expected it was going to be an easy task — and the first year of the Yzerman as GM era hasn’t been.
The Wings, before the coronavirus pandemic paused the NHL, had a 17-49-5 record. Or, in other terms, they’d lost a staggering 54 of 71 games.
With 39 points earned, they 23 points behind the next lowest team, Ottawa, who had 62 points.
Fittingly, the Wings scored the fewest goals (145) and allowed the most (267). Their goal differential was an alarming minus-122.
At Yzerman’s final media gathering before the NHL paused, which was right after the Feb. 24 trade deadline, Yzerman expressed no surprise at the task at hand.
The Red Wings were the only team to already have been mathematically eliminated from the NHL playoff race — the fourth consecutive year the Wings weren’t in the playoffs.
“I knew what I was getting into, and I think I had a general idea what it takes to build a team,” Yzerman said that day. “(Patience) is very difficult to sell, and we gotta show progress. I’m hoping the progress shows next year in wins and losses, but it will show in prospects and their development.”
The development of young players and prospects in the organization, and the continued accumulation of draft picks and stressing the importance of the draft, have been key issues for Yzerman.
In return, the Wings acquired second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021 (along with forward Sam Gagner) for Athanasiou, and Edmonton’s 2020 fourth-round pick for Green (it becomes a third-rounder if Edmonton reaches the Western Conference Finals).
The Wings have 10 picks in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft (six in the first three rounds) — whenever that’ll be once a determination on this season is given — with the Wings guaranteed a top-four overall pick given NHL lottery rules (if those remain in effect).
“Ultimately, I believe you get as many picks as you can, as many high picks you can, just to increase your odds,” said Yzerman, of acquiring talent. “We’re rebuilding, we got to give up something if we want to be a good team 3-4-5 years down the road and somewhere along the way we’re going to have to hit on some of these picks and the only way to do it is to keep them and get more.
“Along the way, we need some of these picks to pan out for us. To simply sit there and hope our first-rounder is gonna work out every year, we need to do better than that. We need the picks and need to keep adding them where we can, for the time being.”
Yzerman made several deals earlier in the season, hoping to land a young player who had yet to reach his potential.
Acquiring forward Robby Fabbri from St. Louis (for expendable Jacob de la Rose), was Yzerman’s best acquisition, with Fabbri looking like a dependable scoring threat.
Yzerman made minor splashes in free agency last summer, signing defenseman Patrik Nemeth and forward Valtteri Filppula.
But with several contracts coming off the book this summer, and holes to fill in the lineup, Yzerman could be more active this free agent season (again, whenever that’ll be).
Yzerman’s biggest decision, to date, could be upcoming regarding coach Jeff Blashill.
Yzerman strongly supported Blashill at the trade deadline, regardless of the Wings’ poor record.
But with the Wings holding a team-option on next season for Blashill, several big-name coaches available, and Yzerman possibly wanting to put his own coach in charge, speculation on Blashill’s future will mount.
Yzerman’s first year was a struggle, and Year Two might be, also.
The roster will largely be young and inexperienced next season, and the talent gap is likely to remain between the Wings and the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
But Yzerman is ready for the challenge.
“It doesn't do anybody good to feel sorry for themselves or for us to feel sorry for ourselves as an organization,” said Yzerman at the trade deadline. “We know what we gotta do. I don’t know what our record’s going to be next year but a lot of things will be different, our team will be different. We’re adding more prospects into the organization, our salary cap situation is going to be a little bit more favorable and we’ll just kind of continue along the path.”
Yzerman’s first-year moves
Entry Draft: Surprsingly drafted D Moritz Seider, who has shown potential to be significant building block.
Free agency: Signed F Valtteri Filppula and D Patrik Nemeth.
Trades: Acquired F Adam Erne (for 2020 4th-round pick); acquired D Alex Biega for minor league F David Pope; acquired F Brendan Perlini for prospect D Alec Regula; acquired F Robby Fabbri for F Jacob de la Rose; acquired G Eric Comrie for prospect D Vili Saarajarvi.
Acquired Edmonton’s 2020 conditional 4th-round pick for D Mike Green; acquired Edmonton’s 2020 and 2021 2nd-round picks (and F Sam Gagner) for F Andreas Athanasiou and prospect F Ryan Kuffner.
Yzerman's to-do list
►Decide on coach Jeff Blashill’s future.
►Prepare for Entry Draft (Wings have 10 picks, including possibly first overall)
►Decide on the future of 12 restricted free agents in the organization. Whom to retain, and who leaves?
►Devise a plan for unrestricted free agency, where the Wings will likely be moderately active.
►Trades — Will there be opportunities to deal this offseason because of economic NHL instability caused by the pandemic?