Allure of Steve Yzerman, improving Wings organization attracts free agents

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Red Wings were bad last season, that’s no secret, and goaltender Thomas Greiss saw it up close.

As a member of the New York Islanders, Greiss was part of two one-sided Islanders victories over the Wings.

That wouldn’t, typically, be a selling point for a player like Greiss to join the Wings, who've now missed the playoffs four consecutive years. But the goaltender, who signed a two-year, $7.2-million contract with the Wings in the early days of unrestricted free agency, sees it differently.

New York Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss, shown here against Detroit in December, signed with the Red Wings as a free agent.

Greiss has faith Detroit general manager Steve Yzerman — along with the young talent on hand and on the way — has the Wings on the right path.

“It’s a good young team,” Greiss said after signing with the Wings. “They have a very good future, and I trust Steve Yzerman that he is going to do a great job.”

Greiss isn’t alone.

The Wings signed five free agents — Greiss, forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Bobby Ryan, and defensemen Jon Merrill and Troy Stecher, along with trading for defenseman Marc Staal — and there was a consensus among them about where the Red Wings are in their rebuild.

Yes, the Wings have been through difficult times and still may not be a playoff team. But the base for a turnaround is there. And players are excited about expediting the turnaround and still view Detroit as an attractive option, in no small part because of Yzerman.

“I want to be part of the rebuild, want to be part of the Red Wings,” said Namestnikov, who lives in Commerce in the off-season and has longstanding ties to the Wings’ organization. “I’m going to come in here and try to help the team as much as possible.”

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'It's a process'

Yzerman’s impact on the organization is significant.

The way Yzerman constructed the Tampa Bay organization — the Lightning core Yzerman assembled was responsible for Tampa’s Stanley Cup victory this season — and his reputation as a manager and former Hall of Fame player, carries clout.

Along with Yzerman’s feelings for the Wings, which Ryan felt first-hand.

“The passion that just comes through for the Red Wings through him is contagious,” Ryan said. “I walked out of the room (after talking with Yzerman) and told my wife, ‘I think we’re signing in Detroit.’ I didn’t feel I needed to hear anything else from anybody.”

Also, in the NHL world of parity, becoming a contender again can happen quickly.

As long as an organization drafts well, and can make some shrewd, cost-effective free agent signings to complement the roster construction, a move upward in the standings can happen sooner than in the past.

“I don’t think you’re ever too far from winning,” said Staal, who saw his Rangers rebound after missing two playoff seasons. “I wasn’t there (Detroit) last year, obviously, so I can’t speak on what was going on with the team, but everytime we played them, they were a very detailed team that wasn’t easy to beat by any means. They just need to get over the hump where success in winning games becomes a regularity.

“They have some very good young players.”

Greiss feels the experience he’s had on Long Island, playing for a team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals in the Return-to-Play, can help the Wings.

That was echoed by Namestnikov and Greiss, who both are coming from winning organizations in Colorado and the Islanders, respectively, and have played for several successful teams.

“I’ve been in the league for a number of years now, and played on numerous different teams with different outlooks and successes,” Greiss said. “I know how to navigate a long season, be there for the young guys and help the guys be as successful as we can.”

Troy Stecher, right, signed a two-year, $3.4 million contract with the Red Wings.

All six players have been part of organizations that have been through the Wings are going through, in terms of rebuilding.

Stecher sees similarities between his time in Vancouver and the current state of the Wings. The Canucks are currently among the most promising and exciting teams in the NHL — but are coming off a period where they struggled, missing the playoffs four consecutive seasons.

Where the Wings are now, Vancouver was, too.

“There’s been some challenging times,” Stecher said. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel and you just have to stay focused on what your process is and your goals are.

“The biggest thing is understanding it’s not going to happen overnight and, it’s a process of getting there.”

Establishing a culture that understands what it takes to, and expects, to win, is something Merrill views as important.

Merrill (Grand Blanc/Michigan) was part of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights that astounded the hockey world and made the Stanley Cup Finals in their inaugural season.

“Culture influences winning,” Merrill said. “We (in Vegas) had a perfect recipe that first season. Grit, all different types of guys, all different role players, and it all just stemmed down to our chemistry.

“We loved playing with each other and we respected each other. That was the biggest takeaway I had, to win in the NHL.  It starts with the dressing room and with the culture every day, and establishing that.”

To that end, Ryan had a discussion with Wings forward Dylan Larkin about the mindset of a team that lost as much as it did last season.

Ryan wanted to make sure the Wings hadn’t accepted losing, and liked what he heard from Larkin.

“Dylan mentioned, ‘You can come in and we can be a much more competitive team’,” Ryan said. "We’re a year older, we dealt through a little more (adversity), and there’s going to be some other players coming in.’

“They have a good feeling they’re going to be a much more competitive team. That’s all I needed to hear.

“(But) I did ask, ‘Are you guys bogged down by the losing? Has it gotten to you in the sense that you’re just accepting it?’ Because that would have been a big red flag for me. One thing that was told to me was, ‘coach (Jeff Blashill) would have been fired if we all accepted that.’ So, you understand this is not a group of guys that wants to lose.

“And they’re not going to lose for long. I hope I can help facilitate them into that next stage.”

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Steve Yzerman

'Trying to get better'

Yzerman is satisfied the Wings haven't at all accepted a losing culture, and have a young leadership group that cares deeply.

"These kids, I have to go down and talk to them every day after these losses," Yzerman said. "When you see the desperation and dejection, the frustration in their faces, we’ve got a good little nucleus there, we just need more players.

"We’ll just keep trying to get better."

The players Yzerman acquired or signed all are looking for opportunities to show they can be impactful NHL players. Playing for the Wings, they'll likely get the playing time and opportunity to show their worth.

But along with opportunity, players such as Namestinikov, Ryan and Merrill all have ties to the area, and all were attracted by playing for the Wings, which Staal and Greiss referenced as a special ingredient — and Original Six franchise with a storied history.

Yzerman sees it, and free agents have shown, Detroit remains a strong hockey market.

"Thee other lure, not just the opportunity, but I believe the players are intrigued to play for an Original Six franchise and play for the Red Wings," Yzerman said. "A player like Jon Merrill, he’s played here with U-18 program (in Plymouth Township, the US National Development Team Program), he grew up in the area. These kids, they know the area and they know the city and it’s a great place to play.

"So there is an allure to playing here in Detroit.”

“It’s important for players to be excited about where they are playing, like where they are living. Everyone has different motivations for places they want to play, and one thing about Detroit being a good hockey town, hockey city, is a lot of kids played here. Much like the kids in Toronto or Montreal were dreaming of playing for the Leafs or the Canadiens, a lot of the kids grow up dreaming of playing for the Red Wings.

"So it’s great they’re enthusiastic and want to come back and play.”

Twitter: @tkulfan