Red Wings' Steve Yzerman hopes for improvement, expects 'renewed enthusiasm' for 2020-21

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — They will have not played an actual game in about 10 months because of the pandemic, which ended a season the Red Wings would largely like to forget.

The Wings’ had the NHL’s worst record and hope on the ice seemed far away.

Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman says he's still "poking around" regarding free agency and trades.

But general manager Steve Yzerman overhauled the roster, and has brighter expectations for the rapidly approaching, and much-awaited new season.

“I can’t predict what we’re going to be, but I hope we’re improved from last year,” Yzerman said Tuesday during a Zoom call with media. “How much I don’t know.

“We’ve made several changes and the players were very enthusiastic when we talked to them prior to signing with the team. That was very encouraging. There will be renewed enthusiasm. A majority of our players are on short-term contracts. They have a lot to play for, a lot of personal motivation.”

Enthusiasm around the NHL is building since the league and Players’ Association worked out final agreements last weekend, announcing a 56-game season beginning Jan. 13.

The Wings and six other teams that missed the playoffs will start training camp Dec. 31, with the rest of the league starting Jan. 3.

“I expect them (players) to be energetic and enthusiastic,” Yzerman said. “We have a lot of changes in our lineup. I expect the players to be in top physical condition, the best condition you can be in not playing games.”

The NHL has realigned the league into four geography-based divisions, in an effort to limit travel during the current pandemic.

The Wings have been placed with Columbus, Carolina, Chicago, Dallas, Florida, Nashville and Tampa Bay.

The Wings will play each of the teams eight games each — four at Little Caesars Arena, four on the road — in predominately, baseball-style, two-game sets.

With the condensed schedule, and the virus still plaguing sports at every level, the NHL is allowing teams to carry a four- to six-man taxi squad.

How to best utilize the squad — whether it be younger or older prospects — is something Yzerman must decide.

“I really want the young kids playing every night on a team,” Yzerman said. “Practice is great for a little bit, but day in, day out, all guys want to play regardless of whether you’re 20 or 30. They all want to play games.

“Anybody who is on that taxi squad, after a while, it’s going to be a bit like groundhog day for them.”

The future of the American League — the NHL’s minor pro league and chief development league — is unknown for this season because it’s a gate-driven league that relies on fans (who currently aren’t allowed in most markets).

“Common sense says they’ll probably have to play, guys will get injured, cross your fingers nobody contracts the virus and can’t play, but at certain points guys will get called up,” Yzerman said. “Instead of being called up from Grand Rapids, they’ll get called up from the taxi squad. How much or when, that’s the unpredictable part.”

Yzerman touched on various other issues, with the Red Wings about to begin preparations for the season:

►Yzerman continues to poke around at available unrestricted free agents and trade possibilities to bolster the roster.

With so many teams still over the salary cap, and some interesting free agents available, there’s expected to be a lot of movement before the season begins.

“Definitely poking around,” Yzerman said. “You’re always looking to ways to get ahead or improve.”

►Yzerman confirmed there will be no fans at Little Caesars Arena when the season begins, per regulations from local and state levels.

►Yzerman still plans on naming a captain before the season begins. Most expect Dylan Larkin to become the captain. The Wings haven’t had one since Henrik Zetterberg retired in 2018.

“We haven’t figured out exactly how we’ll roll that out, but our plan hasn’t changed,” Yzerman said.

►The Wings are bringing back forwards Filip Zadina, Michael Rasmussen and Mathias Brome, and defensemen Filip Hronek and Gustav Lindstrom from Europe, where they were loaned to begin the hockey season.

Defenseman Moritz Seider and forward Joe Veleno will stay in Sweden until their teams’ seasons are done in the spring.

►Yzerman isn’t sure if the Red Wings will have a sponsor’s logo on their helmet, as a few other NHL teams already have announced.

The NHL is looking at the opportunity as a way to generate revenue, during a time in which the league has been hit hard because of the pandemic.

“Whether the Red Wings do or not, it’s not my department; I’m in hockey operations,” Yzerman said. “But it’s an opportunity. We have to be creative. Obviously our revenues have taken a significant hit.

“I don’t have an issue with it. It’s a good opportunity to try it and see if we can generate revenue from it. It’s the norm outside of North America in every league.”

Twitter: @tkulfan